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Article Contents

Introduction 1, theoretical framework: online journalism as an open innovation process, interactivity as an online journalism myth: a recontextualized literature review, case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life, discussion: interactivity in context, conclusion: implications and further research, about the author.

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Interactivity in the daily routines of online newsrooms: dealing with an uncomfortable myth

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David Domingo, Interactivity in the daily routines of online newsrooms: dealing with an uncomfortable myth, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication , Volume 13, Issue 3, 1 April 2008, Pages 680–704, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2008.00415.x

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This article analyzes interactivity in online journalism as a powerful myth with which journalists have to deal in their daily work. A constructivist approach to media innovation is used to explore the historical origins of the myth that predicted interactivity would change journalism and to confront it with the actual practices of online media projects through published empirical research and four case studies selected from an average European regional market. The analysis of the cases is based on ethnography of online newsrooms working routines and in-depth interviews with reporters, editors and web developers. The actual role of the myth of interactivity in shaping the development of these four online news projects is discussed taking into account the material and organizational context of the newsrooms. Findings suggest that the professional culture of traditional journalism has a strong inertia in the online newsrooms that prevents them from developing most of the ideals of interactivity, as they do not fit in the standardized news production routines.

Weblogs and citizen media sites have revitalized the idea that the Internet will make journalism more dialogical, turning the audience into active collaborators of journalists’ news production work ( Bruns, 2005 ). The buzzword in the 1990s was interactivity. Now it is participatory journalism. But the bottom line is the same: many professional and scholarly discourses tend to reproduce ideal models of what online journalism could be, taking them for granted as the path that news production on the Internet must walk. Empirical research has already offered evidence that the development of these ideals in online news sites tends to be limited ( Kenney et al. , 2000 ; Van der Wurff and Lauf, 2005 ) and has identified that there is “a gap between, on the one hand, online journalists’ perceptions of the Internet’s potential and, on the other hand, the actual use of interactive features” ( Deuze et al. , 2004: 22 ). The fact is that we know very little about how online journalists deal with interactivity in their daily working routines and what is the rationale behind the development of interactive options on online news sites.

This article advocates refocusing the analytical lens of online journalism studies in order to explore these questions. Borrowing concepts from disciplines that have a long tradition of analyzing technological innovation processes –from Social Shaping of Technology to Communication History–, we can get a perspective that acknowledges that any development in online journalism is the consequence of decisions taken in specific newsrooms in particular circumstances by journalists that have a professional culture, knowledge and expectations about the Internet as a news medium. This exercise of “historicizing and localizing new media” ( Boczkowski, 2004a: 146 ) and understanding innovation as an open process unlocks the assumption that interactivity is a necessary goal for online journalism and lets the researcher turn the assumption into part of the object of study. Following Mosco’s (2004) analysis of discourses on the Internet and the information society, this paper proposes that there is a myth of interactivity in online journalism, embedded in the mindset and discourses of online journalists. This shift in the analytical lens allows to problematize interactivity as a concept that interplays with other material (staff size, technical resources) and social (professional culture, work organization) factors in the shaping of online news projects.

An ethnographic study of four online newsrooms was used to develop and test this research approach. Through the analysis of the working routines of online journalists and their discourses about their jobs, material and social constraints shaping the development of interactivity were explored. Results suggest that despite the diversity of definitions and strategies regarding interactivity among the studied online newsrooms, the professional culture of traditional journalism prevails over the myth and turns it into a problem to deal with instead of an opportunity for change.

The use of the Internet as a new medium for news diffusion motivated in the 1990s a strong wave of hope for change among journalists and scholars critical to the professional vices of the mass media industry. Authors decried the “waning of classical journalism” ( Dahlgren, 1996 :61) due to the business logic of media, the mixing of entertainment and information, the fragmentation of audiences and, mostly important, the self-referential nature of news production, more and more detached from the citizens’ concerns ( Dahlgren, 1996 ; Hall, 2001 :155; Lowrey and Anderson, 2005 ). Internet features such as its distributed anti-hierarchical network structure and multi-directional communication capabilities ( Newhagen and Levy, 1998 ) were seen as the perfect triggers for a revolution that would bring “a fundamental transformation” of journalism ( Pavlik, 2001 :xi) and get it back to its original public service rationale. “Journalists and researchers alike seem to have developed some kind of (un)conscious consensus,” concluded Deuze in an early literature review (1999:385): interactivity, hypertext and multimedia were identified as the keywords to describe the changes the Internet will produce in journalism.

In order to fully understand current trends in online journalism, researchers need to put these ideals and their proponents into their historical context. While in the last decades Communication Studies has borrowed “sophisticated conceptual language and grounded methods” from Science and Technology Studies ( Boczkowski and Lievrouw, 2007 :3) in order to address technological innovation as an object of study, research on journalism has seldom taken such steps ( Cottle, 2000 :33; Boczkowski, 2004b :199). The rich tradition of newsroom ethnographies started in the 1970s (see Tuchman, 2002 ), which thoroughly analyzed the professional culture and working routines, needs new conceptual tools for a “second wave” ( Cottle, 2000 ) that could study the current changes in journalism with the same critical attitude as journalistic culture was analyzed by those earlier ethnographers. In this section, the concept of myth applied by Mosco (2004) to the Internet as a technological innovation and the theoretical contributions of the research on Social Shaping of Technology and Communication History are used to place the utopian discourses regarding online journalism in the context of the actual development of online news, and explore their role in that process.

“Myths are stories that animate individuals and societies by providing paths to transcendence that lift people out of the banality of everyday life. They offer an entrance to another reality (…). Myths are not true or false, but living or dead” ( Mosco, 2004 :3). Online journalism has its own myths, proposals that tell the path to make the profession better, and they are surely alive. They have served as models for online newsrooms and scholars alike, to define products and working routines, training courses and research, even after the so-called “dotcom crash” at the beginning of the 2000s (see Bardoel, 2002 ).

The underlying “technological utopianism” ( Katz, 2005 ) in these discourses on online journalism ( Boczkowski, 2002 :279) is quite a natural and historically coherent reaction to innovation: Since the beginning of the modern era, Western societies have tended to define technology as a leading force for social change, creating utopian (or dystopian) discourses on the benefits (and risks) of every new technology, believing they will be automatic consequences of the social adoption of the invention 2 . The Internet was also welcomed with myths about “the end of history, the end of geography and the end of politics” ( Mosco, 2004 :13). Journalism could not be set apart of this hope for change, and online journalism developed surrounded by many myths (re)produced in professional magazines, scholarly publications and conferences through the 1990s.

Talking about the Internet in general, Mosco argued that we need “to understand these myths in order to develop a deeper appreciation of the power and the limitations of computer communication” (2004:13). By understanding why the myths are created, what they mean to people and why they survive the proof of the harsh reality, we can make explicit the political and social program that lies beneath the myths and help to develop it from a much more solid base. Online journalism myths can be interpreted as a program for creating a more transparent, comprehensive and dialogical reporting that would strengthen democratic participation in plural societies. If we agree that this is a worthy aim, then we need to know more about the real context in which it has been formulated and adopted, so we can take the right decisions to make it real.

Rhetorical closure

Social Shaping of Technology 3 (SST) has usually researched the social context of engineering inventions and how different social groups give different meanings to the same technology and decide its uses and rules ( Williams and Edge, 1996 ; Lievrouw, 2006 ). Their main point is that there is always a degree of interpretative flexibility in any new technology, and different relevant social groups will put forward their definitions of the innovation trying to make them accepted by the rest of the group, achieving rhetorical closure ( Bijker, 1995 :46-). We can understand the myths of online journalism as proposed definitions for the development of the Internet as a news medium. Due to their powerful mythical construction, they were very pervasive in gaining the “consensus” detected by Deuze (1999) among all the relevant actors (media executives, journalists, scholars), but empirical research showed that this discursive hegemony was not easily incorporated into the actual development of news websites and online newsrooms routines. The reasons for this contradiction were empirically explored in the ethnographic study presented in this article, and will be discussed later.

Online journalism myths can, therefore, be understood as a socially constructed discourse that was shaped under the historical context of the social adoption of the Internet and the crisis of the social role of journalism. The myths do not naturally derive from the technological features of the Internet even if they are formulated like if they actually were: the features of the network are just (again) the social construction of a very flexible technology and therefore could have been different and have actually evolved over time ( Abbate, 1999 ). Online journalism myths are the adaptation to journalism of the ideology of the “open Internet,” which was not, and still is not, the only interpretation available for the technology ( Flichy, 1999 ). They are the meeting point between 1) the technoutopian paradigm of those who developed the Internet thinking that it would help the world to be more democratic by opening up the access to knowledge sharing and 2) the critical discourses on the crisis of journalism as public service in the era of entertainment ( Dahlgren, 1996 ).

Inscription and translation

Taking SST to the field of anthropology with the help of semiotics, the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) offers a compelling framework to explain the dynamics of innovation ( Callon, 1987 ; Latour, 2005 ). I cannot discuss the theory in full here nor debate some of its controversial proposals, but I will highlight the concepts that can be useful to answer the contradiction stated in the previous section. For ANT, every element (persons, institutions, material artifacts) related to a technological innovation is an actor in the process of defining it: while human actors propose definitions of a technology, material actors may limit the spectrum of possible definitions with their own material limitations. Actors are part of a network of relationships that shape the innovation. Inventors of the technology embed some expectations in the design of the artifact, i.e. there is an inscription ( Akrich, 1992 ) of potential users, uses and rules. This may direct the actual uses, but the network of actors involved in the development of the technology is often complex and full of tensions. In the process of social adoption of the innovation, each actor in the network does an active (but usually unconscious) exercise of simplification of the whole structure of relations and competing definitions in order to be able to integrate the innovation “into the context of their specific work tasks and situations” ( Monteiro, 2000 :77). This process of adapting the definitions (uses, expectations) of a technology to the own needs of each actor is what ANT labels as translation .

To construct their proposals on what online journalism could be, the earlier proponents took the definitions inscribed in the features of the technology (hypertext, interactivity, multimedia) by the first developers and users. Those mythical definitions where then translated by each online newsroom to fit them into their working routines and professional culture. To explore this process, ANT would suggest an ethnographic approach based on specific case studies, to guarantee that the researcher is able to put actors’ decisions in the context (network) of their material and organizational circumstances. Obviously the network extends beyond the online newsroom to the rest of the company, the competitors, the professional literature and meetings; but without the “thick description” ( Geertz, 1973 ; Lindlof and Taylor, 2002 :16) of the smaller networks that are online newsrooms in the full actor network of online journalism, we would miss the most crucial moment of the translation of the myths into practical decisions for the organization of online news production.

The ‘law’ of the suppression of radical potential

From a closer perspective to journalism research, Communication History has stressed that technologies are a product of society: there is a social context where they are invented, which determines the “intention” of the researchers in developing them ( Williams, 1975 :7), and a social context where they are adopted, in which users negotiate with the proposed definitions of the technology to adapt them to their needs and adapt themselves to the requirements (see also Flichy, 2006 ). In the context of this process of “mutual shaping of technological and social change” ( Boczkowski, 2004b :209), Winston (1998 :11) suggested that there is a ‘law’ in “the histories of all telecommunications technologies”: there is empirical evidence that actions for the suppression of radical potential have been triggered by every innovation in mass communication. This resistance to change by the media institutions has allowed them to have enough time to adapt and change without losing their main attributes and power, thus suppressing the potentially dangerous effects of a radical innovation.

The analysis carried out by historians and sociologists of the media suggests that, despite of the wide diffusion of the myths of online journalism, the actual logic of media companies when entering the global network had more to do with mass communication than with the horizontal sharing of knowledge ( Christopher, 1998 ; Riley et al. , 1998 ; Scott, 2005 ). They mainly tried to reproduce the production model that was applied to the press or broadcasting, the one that they knew well. However, Boczkowski pointed out: “On the other hand, the cumulative transformations should not be underestimated. (…) It appears that in a relentless pursuit of permanence, newspapers ended up undertaking substantial change” (2004c:52). From the perspective of Winston’s ‘law’, the initial conservative attitude guaranteed the suppression of the radical potential of the Internet and let the media explore its possibilities inside the framework of their existing professional culture.

The theoretical concepts reviewed in this section have in common that they share a constructivist approach to innovation, which is understood as an open process that can have different outcomes in different settings. That is the best antidote to explore the myths of online journalism as a historical phenomenon that played a role in the development of online media.

Interactivity –the power of the user of a medium to control the communication flow or even alter the message sent by the producer ( Downes and McMillan, 2000 )– has always been the epicenter of online journalism myths: “The fact that the response of –and interaction with– the audience is the key element of the online news site could allow for a cultural change in journalism” ( Deuze, 1999 :378). This section explores the historical origins of and the proposals on interactivity as a key feature of online journalism and then confronts these mythical discourses with the actual practices of online media projects through published empirical research.

The rationale for the construction of the myth of interactivity was what researchers identified as a phenomenon of “disintermediation” ( Hall, 2001 :53) fostered by the horizontally distributed technology of the Internet: if journalists would not start to listen to their audiences, online users might look for other spaces to share information in a more horizontal, many-to-many way. “Everyone becomes a content producer” ( Punie et al. , 2001 :7) and journalists “may find themselves increasingly irrelevant, left behind by a new generation of communicators” ( Seib, 2002 :14). Other authors argued that the sheer amount of information available online actually made journalists more necessary than ever to filter what is relevant ( Singer, 1997 ), although their functions and their relationship to the audience might change quite dramatically 4 . “Journalism evolves from the provision of facts to the provision of meaning,” proposed Bardoel (1996: 297) . Whether or not these predictions finally become real changes in journalism as a profession, “increased transparency between readers and journalists may weaken the occupation’s authority” and make it easier to new actors such as bloggers to claim some of the functions that used to be a monopoly of journalism ( Lowrey and Anderson, 2005 ).

At the origin of these radical redefinitions of journalism in the second half of the 1990s there are principles borrowed from the development of the concept of interactivity in CMC studies ( Rafaeli, 1988 ; Steur, 1992 ) and ideals inspired in the libertarian philosophy of the 1980s pioneering netizens ( Rosenzweig, 1998 ; Flichy, 1999 ) and the movement of public journalism ( Glasser, 1999 ; Haas, 2007 ), critical to the growing distance between the media and society.

McMillan (2006) identified three levels of interaction in new media: user-to-user, user-to-document and user-to-system. Potential changes in online journalism under the impulse of interactivity relate to these various facets, ranging from content customization, to users’ feedback to reporters and users’ discussion of current events, and direct involvement of citizens in the production processes of news. The wide range of options referred to under the label of interactivity actually makes the concept a bit too elastic. Meikle (2002 :32) borrowed from Tim Berners-Lee (1999 :182-183) the term intercreativity to distinguish those processes that push interactivity to its furthest development, where users and producers are co-creators. Intercreativity has been used to describe citizen journalism initiatives, but in this article I stick to the concept of interactivity as it is the common token in professional discourses to refer to the different degrees of audience participation developed in online journalism.

Content customization

The digital management of news makes it technically possible to filter content on the basis of the preferences of each user. This empowers users, who are able to customize the product and consume it in the way that best suits their needs ( Kenney et al. , 2000 ; Pavlik, 2001 :22). Several authors stated concerns about the consequences of customization in a somewhat dystopian discourse: the social cohesive role of mass media might be in danger ( Dahlgren, 1996 :92; Jankowski and Van Selm, 2000 :87). The use of RSS feeds and news aggregators can remove from the news diet of the citizens those current events that editors believe to be of general interest from journalistic criteria. Dahlgren wanted to believe that other forms of interactivity can compensate for the drawbacks of customization: “While such preselectivity may both eliminate elements of serendipity in user’s news experiences and further fragment the public, interactivity nonetheless does open up the potential for new relationships between journalists and their publics” (1996: 65).

Audience feedback

One of the specific materializations of these possibilities is enhanced audience feedback. The public availability of reporters’ email addresses on news websites, next to their news stories, turns readers and viewers into commentators, critics and collaborators. Even the old-fashioned letters to the editor have been sped up because they can now be submitted by email. The relationship between journalists and their audience can be richer, and for the first time reporters can systematically know what do their audiences expect from them ( Deuze, 1999 :378; Seib, 2002 :89). Journalists have discovered that they are not the only watchdogs in the public sphere: Users can be the most demanding news quality checkers, pointing out wrong data or unsatisfactory coverage ( Bowman and Willis, 2003 :47). They can also be the eyes of the journalist, uncovering new hot topics and submitting first-hand accounts, photos and videos that can enhance a story.

Citizens’ debate

A second development that could counter the effects of customization and news aggregators is the promotion of citizens’ debate in online news sites, which bring to the public arena discussions that are often restricted to close family and friends ( Kawamoto, 2003 :13). Unlike mass media, the Internet can easily be a platform of many-to-many discussions, open to anybody and continued over time without limitations ( Hall, 2001 :53). This debate space can create solid virtual communities around news websites, increase user loyalty to the brand and increase knowledge of the audience’s mindset, interests and attitudes ( Bowman and Willis, 2003 :53). Journalists can take advantage of the content generated in the debates to decide what issues deserve more coverage, to explore new topics and to feed editorials.

Citizen journalists

Some authors push the interactivity myth a little bit further, to the limits of the concept. If online users can become “citizen journalists” ( Gillmor, 2004 ), the media would better have them in the team rather than competing with them for the hard-earned reader attention: Users can be part of the professional news production process. The influential text We Media , by Bowman and Willis (2003) synthesized years of proposals about how to make this aspiration real. Online media can incorporate auto-publishing tools for NGO, and civic, cultural and sports associations so that they could produce news pieces in sections of the website. They can also encourage individuals to become neighborhood reporters or expert commentators on topics they are keen on. Journalists can also use the Internet to post the issues they are working on and to ask readers for personal experiences, ideas, data and suggestions that would improve the resulting news story.

Yet another step away from traditional journalism, advocated by pioneering online journalists, would be to transform the online publication (a unidirectional producer of news) into a fully horizontal virtual community, where sources/users (both will be readers and producers) would exchange information and opinions fluently ( Guissani, 1997 ). In this context, journalists would just be the “conductors of the public debate” ( Bardoel, 1996: 299 ), setting aside their monopoly as news producers. In this scenario, news would no longer be an “objective” story, but a heterogeneous narration made up of multiple voices ( Bruns, 2005 ).

Participatory online journalism seems to be a very powerful and appealing myth, since it has emerged once again after being dismissed several times. The MUDIA Project ( Punie et al. , 2001 ; Punie, 2003 ) that analyzed new media developments in Europe moved participation of users in production from the first (in 1999) to the least (in 2001) important driving force in the evolution of online media. But the weblog phenomenon strongly reactivated the myth. Much of the discussion around weblogs has concentrated on defining whether this form of extremely easy personal publishing is or is not journalism, as it might finally make the theoretical many-to-many threat a reality ( Matheson, 2004 ; Wall, 2005 ). Referential news websites have developed forms of participatory journalism (user weblogs, citizen stories) as part of their online presence in order to keep up with these trends. Again, online journalism is at a crossroads where myths seem to be the only possible path to the future, while empirical research shows that online editors still feel “uncomfortable” about it ( Chung, 2007 ; Hermida and Thurman, in press ).

What empirical research tells

Surveys of online journalists clearly show that they strongly adhere to the myth of interactivity: “More than two-thirds of the Flemish respondents believe that the future of online news production lies in interactivity” ( Deuze et al. , 2004: 22 ). In the Netherlands, 73 per cent “support the claim that building a stronger and interactive relationship with the public is the best way to do online journalism” (2004: 24). However, online news sites analyses show that the development of interactive features defined in the online journalism myths is generally poor. Kenney et al. (2000) measured several dimensions of interactivity through elements in the home page of 100 online news sites from around the world (62% were US based). The average level of interactivity was low and did not allow users to influence significantly on their information consumption experience. The aim of interactive elements was, in the eyes of the researchers, “to attract users’ attention.” Quinn and Trench (2002) found similar results in a cross-European comparison of 24 news websites and pointed out that purely-online news media ranked a little bit higher in interactivity features than those linked to traditional media.

Forums, the most commonly analyzed feature, were not a common option in 1999: 33% US online newspapers provided them ( Schultz, 1999 ), 20% in Asian news sites ( Massey and Levy, 1999 ). In the global sample of Kenney et al. (2000) only 17% of the sites had forums, while half of the Flemish sample of Paulussen (2004) offered this feature in 2000. Van der Wurff and Lauf (2005) stated that only 40% of the websites of the leading newspapers of sixteen European countries had a user forum in 2003. Interviews with US online editors ( Paul, 2005 ) and content analysis of thirteen European online newspapers ( Fortunati et al. , 2005 ) highlighted that reporters were seldom involved in the users’ debates. Hermida and Thurman (in press) detected a dramatic increase of user participation features in UK online newspapers from 2005 to 2006, when the concept of participatory journalism gained widespread acknowledgment in the professional literature. Despite this acceleration trend in the development of interactivity in online media, that seems to be global, Hermida and Thurman (in press) assessed that the online editors they interviewed were very concerned with the risks for quality, relevance and credibility that user-generated content poses, and therefore their strategy tended to replicate the gatekeeper model also in this area: they filter it with costly human-resource consuming supervision and clearly separate it from the news produced by professionals.

The translation process from the myth to the daily practices seems to be a hard one in the case of interactivity. In another study based on in-depth interviews, 22 award-winning US online editors appreciated interactivity “to be a positive characteristic of online news” ( Chung, 2007 :50), but they defined it mainly as the user-to-document aspect defined by McMillan (2006) . Chung (2007 :52) classifies their attitudes in a continuum from innovators who “used their publication in creative ways to encourage the audience to ‘meet’ the online publication’s staff” (ibid. ) , to cautious traditionalists that stress the problems they encounter in this exploration, and purists , a minority “hesitant or even averse” to change (ibid. :55). Boczkowski (2004b) , used a similar approach to the one proposed in this article and identified three main factors shaping the strategies to develop interactivity in three US online newspapers: the presence of print journalism working routines in the online newsrooms, the representation of the users as technically savvy (or not), and the prevalence of the gatekeeper model as the center of the production process in the cases studied. In the case where a citizen-journalism model was developed, the online project leaders were completely independent from the print newsroom, they did not rely on gatekeeping as the core production strategy, and users were represented as Internet savvy “producers,” not mere “consumers” (see also Boczkowski, 2004c :141-). The case studies presented in the following sections show that the factors identified by Boczkowski are not specific to US media, as they are also found in the sample of regional European media analyzed here. However, my research suggests that these factors are part of a wider web of strategic decisions and professional values usually overlooked by the existing literature.

The context for the negotiation and definition of the Internet as a news medium are media organizations and, more specifically online newsrooms, framed within the highly standardized set of rules and processes of the institution of mass media. Both the theoretical framework and the existing tradition of research inside newsrooms ( Tuchman, 2002 ) recommend ethnography as an adequate method to address this object of study. While there is scarce ethnographic research on US online newsrooms ( Singer, 1997 ; Martin, 1998 ; Boczkowski, 2004b , c ), fewer studies have been published to date analyzing European cases ( Eriksen and Ihlström, 2000 ; Paterson and Domingo, in press ). This article contributes to fill in this void and aims to encourage other researchers to pursue its approach, as it helps in tracing the diversity and commonalities in the development of the Internet as a news medium.

As theories of innovation suggest that different settings may produce different developments of the same technology, it was considered adequate to conduct a comparative study of four cases with different media backgrounds. The common ground is that the four websites are part of the same European regional media system –Catalonia, 5 in the Northeast of Spain– and are devoted to general interest news of the region, with a quasi-permanent update of information. The sameness in scope and objectives would help in finding differences due to their different media traditions. These are the cases chosen for the ethnographic study 6 :

laMalla.net : An online-only project, started in 1999 and funded by a regional government.

elPeriodico.cat : A regional newspaper online venture, started in 1995, the most veteran daily online in the region.

3cat24.cat : A public broadcaster online news portal, created in 2002 after initial experiments of teletext news feeding the broadcaster general website.

DiarideTarragona.com : A local newspaper online version, started in 2001.

Observation of the working routines was mainly conducted in 2003, consisting in 5 stages of 3 days in each of the four newsrooms. Longer stages (weeks and even months) in a single spot are common in ethnography ( Lindlof & Taylor, 2002 ). Nevertheless, I decided to limit them to 3 days and scatter them in 6 months because of logistic and epistemological reasons. I wanted to have a time perspective in the ethnography, as in the whole research. This weekly rotation allowed me to visit every media company from month to month, and this helped to detect more easily if the product or the routines were evolving. The stages consisted in observing journalists at work, usually without interrupting their duties to ask questions. Informal conversations were undertaken in the newsroom to make explicit journalists definitions on their work and the technologies they used. During this phase documents defining the news websites and routines were retrieved in the field, specially the ones of the first stages of the projects.

In a second phase, in 2004, over 20 in-depth interviews where conducted with people related to the news websites in the past and present: editors, reporters, technical managers (see figure 1 ). They were asked to reconstruct the evolution of the project from their point of view and their definitions of online journalism in general and their online venture in particular were extracted. A follow-up observation of routines in the newsrooms was made during two days in 2006, once data analysis was underway. Even though a significant part of the staff had changed, most of the routines and discourses remained the same. This suggests a strong socialization of newcomers into the professional culture of the newsroom, very common in journalism ( Schudson, 2003 ).

Profiles of the professionals interviewed in the research

The general aim of the ethnography was to detect the dynamics of innovation in the four cases, the working routines and professional values in place and the factors that have shaped them. I soon realized that journalists in the online newsrooms of the four case studies had incorporated the mythical discourses about interactivity as an ideal model to which compare their daily work. This article presents the qualitative analysis of the collected data regarding interactivity in the daily work of the online journalists and, based on the proposed theoretical framework, discusses the variety (and homogeneity) of strategies, decisions and expectations about interactivity of the studied online newsrooms and the role of the myth in these developments.

Users defined

Beyond material and organizational circumstances, the professional culture of journalism strongly shaped the representation of users in the online newsrooms. While interactivity was a usual keyword in the interviews with the online journalists when we discussed the differences between the Internet and traditional media, in daily routines there was a tendency towards reproducing mass media models, in which journalists were the sole producers, and users were regarded as a rather passive audience, consumers of the stories. In online newsrooms linked to traditional media companies, the strongest value for the online product was immediacy, publishing stories as quick as possible, and this fact strongly affected the development of interactivity. Actually, immediacy was another of the ideals of online journalism proposals in the 1990’s ( Pavlik, 2001 :21). Immediacy prevailed as the main strategy in the online newsrooms of traditional media because it was the easiest way of claiming that their product was valuable for their media company, as the traditional newsroom also shared immediacy as one of the main aims of news production. Active users, instead, was a concept that clashed with the journalistic culture and that would have required a complete redefinition of working routines.

The online-only portal seemed to be more sensitive to interactivity myths in their discourses and in some developments, even though the traditional model also dominated in most of their news production. They argued that Internet users were active consumers that would be willing to become co-producers if they were given the chance, but these more radical definitions of collaborative news production were mainly put into practice only in special coverages. For the editor of the online-only portal, interactivity features in the website were crucial to foster audience engagement, for them to feel part of the online project.

Online newsrooms had access to very detailed statistics about the times when more user visits concentrated and how many times a story had been opened. This was far more than what traditional media journalists could know about their users, but statistics did not tell much about the profile of the online users. In fact, the routines in the analyzed online newsrooms seemed to privilege professional criteria as their main reference for newsworthiness judgments, not users’ preferences. Nonetheless, journalists at the regional online newspaper and the online portal had the habit of looking at the news stories statistics at least a couple of times during the shift to see which were the most viewed today. When asked if user statistics influenced their decisions on the homepage, editors defended that newsworthiness criteria should prevail, but a reporter acknowledged: “You would not change the main story, but surely a popular piece will keep its place on the homepage rather than other secondary stories with fewer readers.” Reporters stated that curious and crime stories were the most visited ones, and those related to the Internet and sports ranked high as well. “Our users have already heard about the big stories at the TV newscasts, and they know more and more how to search what they want on the Internet. I guess this is more democratic. You will continue providing them a professional choice of relevant news, but they now have the chance of looking for what interests them”.

Customization: a little is too much

In the four analyzed cases, just the online portal had developed a flexible homepage that users could define. The regional online newspaper had a user registration system since the end of 2002, but it was just used to control access to the news archive. No customization or analysis of the gathered data was developed at the online newsroom, and the editor-in-chief openly stated that he did not find customization to be an adequate strategy: “It may make sense in specialized media, but big popular online newspapers have to offer broad thematic content and a journalistic selection of issues.”

The online-only portal developers envisioned its customization features in the initial phase of the project, in 1999, but did not actually created it until the mid-2002 revision. It allowed users to decide which sections and local news they wanted to be prioritized on the second block of the homepage (the upper right column). Nonetheless, users could not customize the main story, as the reporters deemed important to keep journalistic criteria visible to every user. Just 15% of registered users took advantage of the customization tool and the customization option was terminated in the last redesign of the web, in 2006.

RSS feeds of the main sections of the news sites, created during the redesigns of the websites between 2005 and 2006, were a much more comfortable option for the online newsrooms. They were regarded as an add-on to the web features rather than as a new publishing venue. Actually, online editors did not consider RSS as a customization option that may take editorial power from their hands: it was described as just a little convenient service for their users.

When audience feedback becomes overwhelming

Speaking in abstract terms, online journalists in the analyzed newsrooms seemed eager to foster audience participation: “At the newspaper you have few opportunities to interact. On the website you can offer a much broader range of participation options: forums, polls, email,” stated a reporter. However, direct audience feedback to the journalist was only a newsroom-wide habit at the online-only portal. Most online journalists in the traditional media companies were completely detached from audience contact. “I used to have email, but I received many press releases and spam, it was just overwhelming, so I forgot about it,” said a reporter.

The studied online newsrooms had practical strategies to manage audience feedback and avoid it to interfere the news production process. At the local online newspaper and the online broadcaster, editors read through the emails and answered or redirected them to the appropriate recipient, be it an online reporter or someone in the traditional newsroom. As there was just a generic email address on the website, the audience regarded it as the channel to communicate with all the media company. At the local outlet most of the messages were press releases, but also comments on articles in the print edition. Sometimes they received pictures of events, but they were seldom used. At the regional online newspaper one person per shift in the online team devoted to general web management (never the breaking news reporters) was in charge of checking the generic email inbox. They had many answer templates to make it easier to manage the interaction. Most of the messages asked for copies of articles and photos or they reported technical problems in accessing parts of the website. Some emails were forwarded to the online editor or even to journalists in the print newsroom.

The online-only portal was the only website in which every story was signed and the author’s email address was available. Reporters received many messages from their audience directly, but even more messages were addressed to the generic email managed by the adjunct editor: “We receive lots of queries, suggestions, corrections. It is amazing how much people use email to communicate with us. I try to answer all the messages as soon as possible and users are very grateful for this. Email just works.”

User comments: trouble or benefit

The fact that interactive policies of the online-only portal were significantly different from those in online newsrooms of traditional media was not only visible in the transparency act of having individual journalists’ email in every story. While the other websites had their forums as a separate service from news, the online-only outlet integrated most of the users’ commentaries right beneath each story, as in weblogs. This was a crucial conceptual difference: at the online portal journalists felt closer to their audience, as users could directly criticize, comment and suggest links on news stories. Reporters visited their stories regularly several times a day to check the comments and they engaged in small conversations in the comments area, answering the most direct proposals. “It is rewarding to see that your story promotes debate, and it is also challenging. Sometimes, there are quite strong comments on mistakes you make, but this only alerts you to be more concentrated on doing things better, in checking twice that everything in a story is all right before posting it,” explained a reporter. Participation at these micro-forums attached to news was completely open, and users could write without the need of revealing their real names. For the editor of the online portal, both the openness of debate space for comment and the fact that journalists write on them, were the keys for the quantity and quality of user participation.

This was a radically different experience from traditional media online forums. The online broadcaster and the local online newspaper forum spaces obliged users to register before posting a message. They did not have to reveal their names, but their nickname could be banned if their attitude was not adequate. In all the cases messages were reviewed after being published on the website, because journalists argued that moderation prior to publication “killed the debate.” The same roles that dealt with audience emails in each newsroom performed forum management routines. Thus, interaction with users tended to concentrate in few hands. This meant that, besides the case of the online-only portal, reporters seldom accessed the forums and user discussions had no effect on news content production.

Forum moderation could actually become a nightmare for online newsrooms. At the regional online newspaper, by far the website with more activity in its forums –which did not require registration–, web management journalists deemed it as one of the most boring routines. Every four or five hours, someone had to check the newly published messages. They had around twenty active forums on long-run issues, but only two or three were hot every week. The journalist systematically deleted offensive messages attacking a concrete person and those containing a website address, because they could not control the content of external webs. Before shift changes, the last reporter reviewing the forums sent an email so that the next reporter knew where to start. They did not provide explanations for deleted messages, but respected online messages complaining about deleted messages. A dozen users were always participating, all day long, picking on the other users and making it difficult to moderate. However, online managers valued the forum very positively: “I think users understand the forum as their own community, not a place to communicate with journalists. It is a public platform, to express themselves in front of many other people, and it is very popular!”.

Blogs made their way as a common publishing technology into the studied newsrooms later than in US or UK online media ( Singer, 2005 ; Hermida and Thurman, in press ). In the four cases, the approach was to “normalize” the format to adapt it to journalistic practices ( Singer, 2005 ): blog was the new label for op-ed columns, with the change that in the new format user comments were allowed. The online-only portal already explored blogging in 2003, in a very specific occasion aside of the daily news production rhytm: the live coverage of a regional elections night. The three other media started exploring blogging in 2007, beyond the chronological scope of this article.

Technical departments were usually more eager to develop interactive features than journalists in the online newsrooms. The web development department at the broadcasting company once decided to set up over 900 forums for their online news portal, one for each of the municipalities having elections in two months time. The online editors-in-chief would initially replicate the discourse of the web development department, stating that this would foster local debates on the candidates, but as soon as they had to deal with the moderation of the forums they would usually complain that they were overwhelmed even if only 30% of them finally had some activity. “This was not a good idea, in the end”, concluded one of the editors.

Users as producers

Again, the only project that made an effort to offer users the chance of participating in content production was the online-only portal. Many special mini-sites designed to cover specific events included users’ production as a part of the content, and some were directly created around the idea of user-generated content. However, the editor was clear in separating journalists’ work from that from the users: “One thing is what the newsroom produces and another what users can produce. We can have an open dialog, but we cannot mix both things.” In fact, most of the proposals of the portal for users’ contributions were not related to current events: A literary space allowed users to send their short fiction stories or poems; a photo album organized around the world globe invited users to send in their holiday pictures; in the anniversary of historical events, users could send in their memories.

Hermida and Thurman (in press) pointed out a crucial factor for British online newspapers to develop participatory features in their websites was competition, doing what other online media were doing to avoid being “left behind”. However, for the idea of users as producers, the pressure of competition was minimal in the regional media market of the cases analyzed in this study: in 2006, only one online-only news portal and an online newspaper besides the analyzed sample had started some user-generated content initiatives in the form of audience blogs.

Online journalism myths are the product of a specific historical context, in the mid 1990s, when the Internet raised high expectations of change in the profession as it started to be explored as a news medium. As a social construction, the myth of interactivity could have evolved over time, but it has proven to be very pervasive and constant in the first decade of online journalism. Professionals in the four cases were very aware of this ideal model and they had developed a very homogeneous discourse in each newsroom to justify why their projects have not developed all the proposals of the myth. Online journalists were generally very critical about their current model, as they knew it was far from the ideal one, and systematically blamed their lack of resources for the distance between myth and reality. A constant complementary discourse was that the online project was work-in-progress and described the features and routines that the newsrooms wanted to develop in the future to get closer to the ideal model. There was an overwhelming rhetorical closure in each online newsroom about this future, but they argued that this would not be reached with the current human resources –from one to five reporters in the main shift, depending of the case.

Beyond the conscious discourse, the mechanisms for the translation of the myth into working routines are far more complex and small staffs are not the only factor involved. The professional culture of traditional journalism played a much more important and surely unconscious role, as demonstrated by the diversity in strategies between the online-only portal and the websites affiliated to traditional media. With similar staff sizes to the regional online broadcaster and newspaper, the portal shows that when the pressure of traditional journalism is not as present, immediacy as a value can be balanced with other priorities such as specialized and service reporting and leave room for the development, to some extent, of interactivity. While in the online newsrooms of traditional media journalists mostly produced stories based on agency wires as they came in, without any specialization, to keep up with the immediacy rule, at the online-only portal every journalist specialized in a range of topics and had first-hand sources rather than relying only on wires. As they had to position themselves as an alternative to traditional media, they privileged stories not linked to breaking news. They still covered breaking news, but reporters had more flexibility in their production pace. Compared to the stressful rhythm of breaking news reporters in the other newsrooms, the ones at the online-only venture had time to check users’ contributions.

In the traditional media online newsrooms, news production was strictly separated from interactivity management. Interactivity was developed because it was deemed as an ideal to be pursued by online journalism, but newsrooms tried it not to affect news production. While online newsrooms of traditional media understood user forums mostly as a problem they had to manage (to avoid inappropriate content), for the online-only portal editor interactivity was an opportunity to enrich news with quality input from users. Nonetheless, the professional culture also shaped the strategies of the portal. The desire for recognition among professionals also made them reproduce most of the traditional routines: Journalists defended their professional values in selecting current events and deciding the hierarchy of what stories were the most important. Customization and audience active involvement in newsworthiness decisions were not comfortable ideals, while users’ contributions as producers were restricted to special mini-sites.

The translations of the myths made by the online newsrooms when taking strategic decisions using their professional culture as their main framework explain the distance between discourse and reality. The ‘law’ of radical potential suppression was again relentless: The inertia of traditional journalistic culture and giving priority to some ideals, such as immediacy, over others guaranteed the survival of the old journalistic model and will surely have an important weight in the future development of interactivity in the analyzed cases. The online newsrooms made choices, conscious and unconscious, that shaped a production model that will be difficult to change in the future, even with more resources. Each newsroom assumed basic principles on what online journalism was and this has had profound implications on working routines, audience definition and product features. Current models had already been embodied as natural by the journalists and an evolution path had been traced for each of the projects. A historical perspective of the projects analyzed, based on the narratives of the interviewed professionals, confirms that they have been very stable on their definitions and development of interactivity.

Special coverage of events was the innovation edge of online news projects. Being outside the daily rhythm of work and mostly devoted to planned events, specials allowed online journalists to think ahead of features and concepts. The other facilitator of these innovation edges was the fact that they were necessarily short-term projects with a limited scope: while general website development was an open never-ending process that could be delayed (for years, in some cases), specials had to be ready when the event was scheduled. They were the space for utopian experimentation: participatory publishing where users could become content producers, multimedia-rich reports, complex hypertext structures with in-depth background on an issue. In a way, specials were the institutionalization of myths: what daily routines could not handle, specials offered a routinized way to develop.

Understanding interactivity as a myth opens up the black box of the very pervasive discourses about the future of online journalism. It lets the researchers detach the ideals from the daily routines and explain the mechanisms that mediate the influence of the myth and shape the actual uses of interactivity in online news. Journalists in the cases analyzed embraced interactivity as a crucial feature of their work, but in practice the professional culture and the priority given to immediacy -which fitted better the values and routines of traditional journalism– made them perceive audience participation as a problem to manage rather than a benefit for the news product, except for the case of the online-only portal. The fact that interactivity is counter-intuitive with the principles of traditional journalistic culture tended to diminish the willingness to explore audience participation.

A comparison of the factors found by Boczkowski (2004b) for the development of interactivity in three US online newspapers with the ones having a role in the European regional media of this study suggests that, regardless of the different cultural context, the prevalence of traditional journalism culture and the representation of the users as passive consumers or active producers had a strong influence in shaping the strategies of the different online newsrooms. In the study presented here, journalists embedded in print or broadcast media companies were more inclined to stress immediacy over interactivity and define their users as consumers. Even though the online-only portal was more eager to explore interactivity and understand their users as active netizens, the references to traditional journalistic norms were still very present. This demonstrates that the professional culture of journalism is very prevalent and actually overshadows the strength and pervasiveness of the interactivity myth. Nonetheless, besides the factors proposed by Boczkowski there are other material and organizational decisions that also worked as brakes for the development of interactivity: the small size of online teams made it impractical to deal with extensive participation opportunities as the priority in three of the four cases was publishing news stories as fast as possible; the separation of news production routines and interactivity management routines in most of the cases minimized the radical potential of audience participation. These decisions may be easily overlooked without observing online journalists at work, but on a day to day basis they are the actual constraints put in place by the somehow abstract inertia of professional culture. While the factors identified by Boczkowski seem to be central to understand the developments in the cases analyzed here, the data gathered suggests that there is a wider web of decisions the researcher needs to trace in order to understand how professional culture and online journalism ideals interplay and materialize in everyday routines. This materiality of the work of online journalists is a key aspect to consider when researching the evolution of innovations in the newsrooms. The professional culture and the Internet myths do not exist in a vacuum, but rather are recreated and renegotiated in every production task, in the design of the content management software or in the staffing decisions.

Even though the results of case studies cannot be directly generalized, the data gathered in the ethnography clearly resonates with trends also detected in the literature review. An ethnographic approach is useful to reveal contextual factors and the historical evolution of online news features ( Boczkowski, 2004b ). However, the research strategy in this study has also limitations: 1) taking the newsroom as the focus of the study may overlook external factors, that are only considered through the eyes of the online journalists analyzed; 2) as the intensive on-site observation was constrained to six months, some changes in the projects during the study period (2003-2006) may have been unnoticed, even thought the follow-up visits and interviews suggested a high degree of stability in the journalists’ routines and attitudes. A comparative cross-country study would be needed to further explore international differences, taking into account meso- and macro-context factors surrounding online newsrooms: the market context (size of the companies, ownership, competitors’ strategies –both professional and citizen media–) and the social context (public sphere history, information society policies, media laws) ( Paulussen et al. , 2007 ). It would be especially relevant to consider whether the ongoing development outside journalism of a digital culture that is based on the active production by the former audience of all sorts of content –from fan replicas of movie narratives to consumer reviews– ( Deuze, 2006 ; Jenkins, 2006 ) and the multiplication of citizen journalism initiatives besides institutional media ( Bruns, 2005 ; Schaffer, 2007 ) do change the perceptions regarding interactivity in online newsrooms and the power balance between the myth and professional culture.

Sharing this data with journalists can help them realize taken-for-granted values and empower them in deciding the future of their projects 7 . Providing them with critical reflections on the current material and social constraints that define online journalism and working routines in online newsrooms, online journalists can understand the role of myths in their daily lives and be able to revisit them or even reinvent them having the realistic starting point of a deep knowledge of the circumstances of their company and newsroom. There are many ways of doing online journalism, and the constraints of any given media company must be reinterpreted as a framework within which there are different options to provide outstanding online news products. Exploring these options successfully will be easier with a deep knowledge of the context and the factors that shaped the current situation. And understanding these factors will also help to channel the attempts to change the very framework of the media company, to shape it so that it can produce better online news. This is never simple to do, but taking informed decisions is a big step towards this ideal scenario. Whether interactivity or active participation of the users will be central to the future of journalism or not will be the result of decisions taken in every single online project.

A first version of this paper was presented to the ICA 2007 conference in San Francisco. The author is grateful to the comments and suggestions made by Ari Heinonen, Pablo Boczkowski, Mark Deuze and Steve Paulussen during the research process.

The parallelism between the rhetoric around the predictions made about the telegraph, the telephone, the radio or televison and the utopian discourses about the Internet is astonishing ( Mosco, 2004: 117–140 ).

Social Shaping of Technology and Actor-Network Theory are research traditions born within the field of Science and Technology Studies.

See Singer (2007) for an update of this early debate on the redefinition of the role of journalists in the context of open publishing.

Catalonia was the pioneering region in Spain in the development of online journalism and Internet services in the 1990s ( Moragas, Domingo and López, 2002 ; Domingo, 2004 ). It has its own language and culture, with a market of around 5 million Catalan-speaking Internet users ( Díaz and Domingo, 2007 ).

More details on the history, organization and working routines of each medium are available at Domingo (2006) .

I follow the spirit of research as a tool to design technological strategies proposed by SST ( Pinch, 1996 ; Williams and Edge, 1996: 867 ).

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Williams , R. and Edge , D . ( 1996 ) The social shaping of technology . Research Policy , 25 , 865 – 899 .

Williams , R . ( 1975 ) Television: Technology and cultural form . London, New York : Routledge . 2003 revised edition.

Winston , B . ( 1998 ). Media technology and society. A history: from the telegraph to the Internet . London, New York : Routledge .

David Domingo ( [email protected] ) is Assistant Professor at the Communication Department of Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Tarragona, Catalonia) and Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa (USA). His research focuses on the development of online journalists’ working routines and values, and their adoption of convergence and audience participation.

Address: W339 Adler Journalism Buliding, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242 USA

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Home > Books > The Evolution of Media Communication

Online Journalism: Current Trends and Challenges

Submitted: 02 October 2016 Reviewed: 23 February 2017 Published: 31 May 2017

DOI: 10.5772/68086

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In the past 25 years, the journalistic sphere has gone through radical changes and transformations, progressively adapting to the contemporary global trends in news‐making. Traditional understanding of journalism as a profession has changed significantly, mostly due to the fact that digital media environment has brought new opportunities but also challenges related to the journalistic practice. The text aims to offer a theoretical reflection on the issue of online journalism. At the same time, the chapter discusses specific forms of Internet‐delivered journalistic production and professional requirements placed on journalists who specialise in online news‐making, taking into consideration the current development tendencies of digital communication forms. The authors work with a basic assumption that many aspects related to form and content of online news need to be discussed in the light of much needed terminological and paradigmatic revisions related to both the general theory of journalism and our practical understanding of journalism as a continual, creative and highly professional, publicly performed activity.

  • innovation in journalism
  • mobile applications
  • mobile journalism
  • news websites
  • online journalism
  • social media

Author Information

Ján višňovský *.

  • Faculty of Mass Media Communication, University of SS. Cyril and Methodius in Trnava, Trnava, Slovak Republic

Jana Radošinská

*Address all correspondence to: [email protected]

1. Introduction

It is generally accepted that the ‘traditional’ press and online journalism have coexisted for more than two decades. This time period has been marked by publishers’ scepticism towards the digital media and pessimist visions of the newspapers’ future significantly. The predictions by many media professionals claiming that ‘the digital turn’ would result in decreasing readership of the press, or even in ‘total extinction’ of the print newspapers, have appeared repeatedly. It is therefore no surprise that publishers have been forced to take various steps leading to preservation of their then‐existing readership bases. However, the current situation does not suggest that the state of matters will change radically in the near future. On the contrary, it is rather reasonable to expect (at least in terms of Slovak media market and Central European region) further decrease in sales of daily newspapers. Paradoxically, some print newspapers and magazines published in the United States and in the countries of Asia and North Africa are—slowly but steadily—increasing their circulation. Despite this development online news portals will most probably strengthen their contemporary market position of highly profitable information sources. Development of journalism in the sphere of social media and digital applications will, undoubtedly, expand further as well.

In the recent years, online journalism has entered and occupied places where Internet users spend a lot of their free time, e.g. social networks. Online media have also made their mark within development of various dimensions of alternative news dissemination and so‐called citizen journalism [ 1 ]. Reacting to the current situation in the field of professional news production and distribution, Gant notes that the century which preceded the emergence of the Internet—a period dominated by large news organisations, increasingly controlled by profit‐oriented corporations—appears to have supported an artificial distinction between journalists and everyone else: ‘In a sense, we are returning to where we started. The institutional press no longer possesses the exclusive means of reaching the public. Anyone can disseminate information to the rest of the world’ [ 2 ]. The emergence of specialised production practices and new tools for disseminating journalistic information indicates that the publishing houses’ and editorial offices’ primal distrust of the Internet, so typical for the second half of the 1990s, has slowly vanished, mostly due to the quick technological improvements and possibilities offered by the online environment. The Internet has become a good partner but also a strong competitor of the ‘traditional’ media. It is currently securing its position of an extremely popular communication means bound to young and middle‐aged generations of media audiences. It also functions as a particularly important tool for improving education, as a space for conducting a wide spectrum of work, business and marketing activities. The traditional media are very well aware that they cannot ignore these aspects. Reacting to the trends in digital communication, the conventional ways of producing journalistic content are trying to use the Internet’s many advantages for their own benefit.

Ongoing transformations of the journalistic profession are obvious also in the case of emerging digital actors who identify themselves as journalists even though they often lack the ‘standard’ professional training and institutional background completely. Eldridge sees this new kind of news producers as those who, through pursuing journalistic work, ‘have irritated and blurred the traditional boundaries of the journalistic field’. However, it has to be acknowledged that this type of digital journalists may, despite their occasionally controversial public image, directly or indirectly cooperate with the mainstream media (e.g. renowned daily newspapers may use and thoroughly investigate materials published by WikiLeaks ) [ 3 ]. According to Gant, they often work ‘at the leading edge of innovative journalism’ and take full advantage of ‘an expanse of digital approaches to share news and information online’ ([ 2 ], p. 34). Knight and Cook also point out that the individual journalist has become much more visible and the traditional media landscape is fragmented, and that is why the voice of the individual becomes clearer in a social media landscape. Journalists—those working inside media organisations as well as those operating ‘outside’ the mainstream media industry—are able to establish direct contact with audiences, and they also have more options as to where to search for (and publish) their news stories [ 4 ].

Even though there is no generally accepted consensus that would explain how exactly the Internet has changed the ways we produce, disseminate and access news, scholars focusing on journalism and professional journalists agree that we are witnessing many shifts in the field of professional production of news and information. The speed of these ongoing transformation processes is, however, the reason why journalistic practices, along with the theory of journalism, are hardly able to cope with them. Regardless of whether the newspapers are available in ‘traditional’ or online forms, the factor deciding on efficiency of their public impact and acceptance is bound to attracting and holding the recipients’ attention [ 5 ]. On the other hand, the attention media audiences pay to specific content projects itself into economic imperatives related to the press and thus create a secondary media market (advertising market). According to Mendelová, the media market may be perceived as a business sector consisting of two different fields—a consumer segment (where products are offered to customers) and an advertising market (where advertisers buy advertising space in order to publicly present their goods) [ 6 ].

The situation print journalism finds itself in is a result of several factors and circumstances. As we have mentioned above, the recipients are able to access increasing amounts of information. Moreover, the Internet, television and even radio spread news much faster than the traditional press. Using new information technologies (such as smart phones, tablets or ‘intelligent’, i.e. Internet‐connected televisions) has become a common part of the everyday reality, especially for young and middle‐aged people. Decreasing circulation of the press proves that, generally speaking, people read the newspapers much less than in the past. However, they spend more time working and playing with the computers. Another fact worth mentioning is that the need for information related to reading newspapers has changed significantly as well (for further information, see Ref. [ 5 ]). Few recipients actually pay attention to political or economic life of the society; the readers are interested in tabloid journalism instead, preferring entertainment over information values. Roubal discusses the ‘society of experience’ and states that ‘a world of unlimited opportunities is a world that also provides unlimited resources in terms of experiences and entertainment’ [ 7 ].

During the last decade, the Internet has become widely available in terms of both access and prices. While in 2007 only 55% of households in the European Union were equipped by Internet connection, 81% of EU households could access the Internet in 2014. Widespread and financially available broadband Internet connection (the most common form of accessing the Internet in EU, in 2014 used by 78% of households) has become one of the pillars of the information society or rather the knowledge society. The highest proportion (96%) of households with Internet access was recorded in Luxemburg and the Netherlands; nine out of ten households could access the Internet also in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The lowest proportion of households with Internet access among EU member states, 57%, was in Bulgaria [ 8 ].

The topics we aim to discuss in the following parts of the chapter refer to contemporary trends in online journalism, its products and practices. Russell notes that these practices ‘give new relevance to long‐standing questions at the heart of what used to be called journalistic profession: How is truth defined and by whom? Which forms of practices of journalism yield the most credible product? How do consumers measure value among, on the one hand, elite media institutions, with their gatekeepers, resources, and professional codes and training, and, on the other, the bloggers and wiki‐ists and emailers, with their editorial independence, collaborative structures, and merit‐based popularity?’ [ 9 ]. The problems Russell positions as crucial only confirm that the current questions of journalism and online journalism are hard to address and answer thoroughly. Nevertheless, we offer our view on the issues by taking into account the most recent developments in the given field of media production.

2. The sphere of online journalism and its development

The term ‘online journalism’ means publishing journalistic content and news stories—in all their sorts—on the Internet. Oxford Dictionary of Journalism by Harcup specifies that ‘online journalism’ includes various kinds of news that are disseminated via websites, social media, RSS channels, e‐mails, newsletters and other forms of online communication. Online journalism, being in sharp contrast with the more traditional ways of journalistic information dissemination related to the press, allows the producers to present news in a non‐linear way; the recipients are able to choose when and how they want to receive the news [ 10 ]. Russell favours the term ‘networked journalism’ and observes that it is ‘about more than journalists using a digitally equipped public as a kind of new hyper‐source. It is also about a shift in the balance of power between news providers and news consumers. Digital publishing tools and powerful mobile devices are matched by cultural developments such as increased scepticism towards traditional sources of journalistic authority’ ([ 9 ], p. 2).

The electronic or rather digital form of publishing and offering journalistic products through the Internet thus can be seen as a basic attribute which allows us to distinguish between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ journalism. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the creative principles of journalism, which result in specific activities of processing and shaping information in order to create journalistic products, are—very much like in the case of ‘traditional’ journalism—associated with employment of strictly determined procedures (for more information, see Ref. [ 5 ]). The overall framework of creative activities related to products of online journalism as well as its final forms is, however, different from the ‘traditional’ outcomes of journalistic work, often to a great extent.

Closely associated with dynamic commercial expansion of the Internet, the very beginnings of online journalism can be dated back to the first half of the 1990s. The most essential steps towards emergence of a new and highly important communication form were taken by the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) in 1991. Following this development, the US Congress pushed a legal act declaring the free worldwide use of this emerging network. With regard to Central Europe, Slovak Republic’s strategic geographic location helped spread the Internet in the Central European region. The Slovak elite daily newspaper SME started to publish journalistic contents on the Web introduced by the Slovak Academy of Sciences (via project ‘Logos’) in 1994. Its own domain www.sme.sk was established in 1996, functioning as a pioneer and ground‐breaking venture—the newspaper ‘entered’ the online environment among the first ones in Central Europe. The daily’s editorial office later partnered with Slovak magazine CD Tip , and together they offered CD‐ROMs providing monthly archives of digital data and texts published online. In 1999, the page was transformed into a fully functioning news portal with daily updates. SME ’s expanded online activity was quickly followed by similar measures taken by its closest competitors, dailies Pravda and Hospodárske noviny.

The most visible aspects of this form of journalism include websites of the ‘traditional’ media (e.g. www.nytimes.com, www.sme.sk, www.rtvs.sk) but also media existing exclusively on the Internet (often called ‘e‐zines’). Online journalism uses various multimedia and interactive elements containing texts, photographs, videos, hyperlinks and users’ comments that are often simultaneously published on social networks in order to be exposed to for larger groups of target audiences. Czech publicist and sociologist Bednář determines the following features of Internet journalism: real‐time access, interactivity, instant comparison with competition, interconnection of information through hypertext and blending formats [ 11 ].

It is quite obvious that each new medium has, at least to a certain extent, adopted and modified previously existing genres in order to expand its own possibilities of processing and disseminating information. Understandably, genres of online journalism are based on genre typology used in the press. On the other hand, the presence of audio‐visual content and other graphic, multimedia and interactive aspects on the Internet functions as a framework for creation and establishment of specific genres which are typical for the online environment (e.g. online interview, online discussion or online reportage). Considering the changes in genres of journalism in relation to the Internet and its quick emergence, Osvaldová states that the freedom of publishing on the Web is one of the basic attributes of this medium. However, preservation of the essential rules of ‘journalistic writing’ seems to be beneficial, at least for now—for the authors and the recipients alike [ 12 ]. The Internet’s influence on journalistic content, its types and its formats is much smaller than its ability to provide yet unseen types of information access. However, the current practice suggests that online contents published in textual, audible or audio‐visual forms are similarly presented in the ‘traditional’ media as well. Online journalism is no exception to this general rule—many journalistic texts published on the Internet are also available and, in the exact same form, in the press.

Online publishing’s influence on content is a significant factor of Internet journalists’ work and thus determines activities of the online news media as such. Besides taking into account its own topics and formal specifics, online journalism also complies with economic imperatives, as it is possible to rather precisely define the target audiences and thus present advertisements quite effectively. Another economic strength of the online journalism is related to minimising costs of printing and distribution. However, as noted by van der Wurff, costs associated with creation of any new product (a newspaper, a magazine, a television show, etc.) are still considerably high [ 13 ]. Production of a new piece designed to be published on the Internet is as expensive as if it was to be published in the press.

Once again it is necessary to stress out that the Internet has brought a significant breakthrough in terms of accessing information. It would be hardly deniable that the users are now able to choose from a plethora of information from all spheres of social life, including public institutions, state authorities and government, business entities, etc. As of the news media, their key objective is to select events of the social reality and process them into the form of media contents, to give them certain added value. The journalistic practice has shown clearly that media has been rather reluctant to take into account the ongoing transformation processes of the online environment. One of the reasons causing this quite low primal trust towards the Internet is the fact that media organisations have had a lot of trouble finding optimal business models able to provide additional profit from Internet content (advertising revenues, premium services, etc.). Paradoxically, unspecified prejudices of the ‘traditional’ media towards the Internet have played their part as well.

Considering the influence of the Internet on the press, i.e. on those media that process information and publish news in textual forms predominantly, it is, on the one hand, visible in the sphere of reception activities related to accessing information; on the other hand, the Web also significantly determines the ways today’s journalists and editorial staffs do their work. Media convergence and economic issues of the press, mostly those associated with circulation and advertising revenues, lead to ‘rationalisation’ of specific creative activities. Such ‘rationalisation’ inevitably leads to reduction of costs in the area of human resources and therefore to merging various (previously clearly distinguishable) professions involved in the editorial activities. Allan summarises the issue very thoroughly: ‘While managers talk of “reorganisation,” “downsizing,” “layoffs,” “cutbacks,” “concessions” and the like (while striving to avoid the word “bankruptcy”), news and editorial posts are being “concentrated,” with remaining staffs members compelled to “multi‐task” as they adopt greater “flexibility” with regard to their salary and working conditions. “Converged” content is being “repacked,” a polite way of saying that its quantity—and, too often, quality—is shrinking as “efficiencies” are imposed’ [ 14 ].

Traditional and time‐tested routines in the journalistic practice are thus, under the influence of ‘multimedialisation’, becoming weaker, which leads to blurring the boundaries between two once strictly separate platforms—the editorial office of a newspaper and the editorial office of an online news portal. After all, the notable changes are visible in terms of the journalistic profession itself; nowadays it is not enough to be a highly skilled writer; one must also be able to effectively work with the Internet, ‘smart’ devices, video cameras, editing software, etc. Moreover, it is necessary to admit that the academic discourse is just at the beginning of conceptualisation of journalism in the new contexts related to digital technology and its use. Heinrich offers a thorough reflection on the issue: ‘A multi‐platform structure of journalism is evolving in which boundaries between the traditional media outlets of print, radio and television are blurring. Print, audio and video are increasingly merging online as the lines between formerly distinct media platforms are becoming indistinct. Network technologies have triggered processes of convergence impacting the management of cross‐platform news flow processes in day‐to‐day news production. Journalistic outlets in Western societies are affected by these developments and acquire new notions of journalistic practice as well as reconfigured perception of our journalistic cultures’ [ 15 ]. Similarly, Czech journalist Čuřík discusses this matter in terms of profession of ‘a multimedia journalist’ and other changes in the traditional journalistic routines. Maybe the most significant positive features of the Internet in relation to the press are inevitable creation of new ways of distributing content to the readers, new forms of this content’s processing and the use of hypertext [ 16 ].

Compared to media such as radio or television, the press is far less demanding in terms of the use of digital technologies; the Web was, after all, primarily created in order to record and transfer textual information. Moreover, computers are not the only devices providing Internet access. The Internet is also available via television screens, tablets and mobile phones. The most significant positive attributes of the Internet in the context of its ‘relationship’ with the press are the possibility of updating information in real‐time and standard publication of audio‐visual materials but also providing access to digital archives and interactivity (the readers’ reactions may be received through e‐mails or in the form of discussion contributions placed below the published materials).

3. News available everywhere: emerging trends in mobile journalism

‘Mobile journalism’ is a specific type of journalistic production where news in various forms (text, audio‐visual recording and the like) are disseminated through the Internet and displayed on screens of portable devices, mostly mobile phones and tablets. Increasing importance of mobile journalism is associated with development of the mobile Web and innovative products offered by global telecommunication operators. According to Westlund, publishing news through mobile phones involves various ways of distributing journalistic content—from alerts sent through SMS and MMS, through web portals of the news media, to specialised mobile applications [ 17 ].

The emergence of mobile journalism is related to development and the wide public use of the mobile Internet and wireless network connection, respectively. Data by Eurostat show that in 2012, 36% of EU residents aged 16–74 were able to access the mobile Internet, while 2 years later, it was already 51%. The most frequently used Internet‐connected portable communication devices include mobile phones or rather smart phones, laptops of all sizes and tablets. In 2014, the mobile Web was most used in the Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark) and in the United Kingdom—by approximately 75% of residents aged 16–74. In contrast, in the Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Romania) and Italy, only 28% of residents were able to access the Internet outside their homes or workplaces in 2014 [ 8 ].

Reacting to the new trends in mobile publishing, Murár states that there are significant differences between designing a ‘traditional’ and a mobile Web—these result from technological specifications of mobile devices and take into account the ways of using portable means of communication. The decisive criterion here is simplicity, in terms of data visualisation, navigation and the content itself. The visual processing of the mobile Web is predominantly determined by displays of portable devices which are significantly smaller than desktop monitors and laptop screens of the standard size of 15.4 inches. The mobile Web also demands special forms of navigation as the readers are not able to use computer hardware such as mice. Another notable change brought by the mobile Web is the utter end of ‘paper folding’ that is so typical for the daily press [ 18 ]. We are nowadays unable to unambiguously identify the ‘priority’ Web content, since it is impossible to predict whether the users will read the news via desktops, notebooks, mobile phones or tablets. Moreover, it is also hard to estimate what type of document orientation (‘landscape’ or ‘portrait’) a specific user of a mobile device prefers.

The most typical feature of the mobile Web is the possibility of using mobile applications. These are specific parts of software designed to comply with operation and the use of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. A mobile application is typically downloaded and installed by a device’s user. Mobile applications of newspapers and news portals are, in terms of typology, called ‘mobile Web apps’. Their content is—in sharp contrast with the traditional press—multimedia and often also interactive; besides, the readers may filter the news in accordance with their own preferences. Access to the newest information is therefore instant and continual.

We point out in our previous work [ 5 ] that general trends in mobile publishing (and the very existence of digital applications designed to browse and read online newspapers via smart phones, tablets and similar devices) are linked to two basic issues that must be addressed by the content providers (media producers):

The first issue is associated with selection of textual and audio‐visual information. These pieces of news are meant to be published online, and thus their effective organisation in the communication space is required; in other words, they have to be positioned appropriately on the displays used by the readers (e.g. computer screens, displays of smart phones or tablets). This ‘information design’ is basically a set of functional editing possibilities that reshape and process information used to create compact journalistic products.

The second issue is to create special kinds of applications that will correspond with the technical features and limitations of communication devices used to mediate the journalistic content. Focusing on interactivity and comfort of the readers (users) should be one of the publishers’ priorities. In this case, we take into account mainly technological design of communication devices; it is necessary to make sure they are available to a wide spectrum of users, even to those coping with various kinds of impairment [ 5 ].

In accordance with the two categories stated above, we define the ‘information design’ as a general approach to content arrangement and presentation of information; its aim is to always communicate particular ideas and information clearly and effectively. Originally developed to improve the usefulness and visual attractiveness of print books and manuals, it is now just as likely to be found in the processes of production of online news published on websites [ 19 ]. The main objective of the information design—effective communication—is achieved through focusing on the information’s recipient thoroughly. The given arguments suggest that information design is mostly bound to the communication content that can be processed by using questions starting with ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘how’. ‘Designing information’ is a process of effective presentation of visual, audio or audio‐visual components in compact, integrated ways. This process minds the clear differences between using graphic elements to arrange the texts and choosing appropriate visual components (e.g. photographs) that complete the textual information (for more information, see Refs. [ 5 , 20 ]).

It is obvious that the use of mobile phones has influenced the editorial practice and journalistic work significantly. In relation to this matter, Harcup observes that a mobile phone is a journalist’s work tool of high importance, just as a pen and later a portable computer used to be important in the case of previous generations of journalists. The journalistic practice employs mobile phones in relation to many everyday activities, mostly to search for information sources, record interviews and videos, create photographs as well as edit and send them. Of course, the effective use of mobile devices in the journalistic production requires new media competences: mainly the ability to seek and verify information online; editing skills associated with processing photographs, recorded sounds and videos; knowledge of online social networks and their functions and, last but not least, experience with web copywriting ([ 10 ], p. 180). However, these trends are influencing not only journalistic production but also distribution and reception of news content as well. As shown by the last year’s issue of European Communication Monitor, the most comprehensive research in the field worldwide, several significant changes in contemporary communication activities related to mobile devices are occurring. The research results are based on responses by 2710 communication professionals from 43 different European countries. Apart from other essential topics associated with public information dissemination, the research report also presents a set of information and data on ‘perceived importance for addressing stakeholders, gatekeepers and audiences today and in 3 years’, i.e. a comparison of the current importance of modes of audience address and its perspectives or rather changes in the near future [ 21 ]. Even though face‐to‐face communication is currently identified as the most important with 77.6% and its importance will slightly increase to 77.9% in 2019, there are other categories to consider as progressively influential. These include online communication via websites, e‐mail, intranets (now 76.9 and 82.9% in 2019), social media and social networks (76.2% in 2016, 88.9% in 3 years). However, the most significant shift in the importance of communication channels and instruments is related to category of mobile communication (phone/tablet apps, mobile websites)—from today’s slightly above‐average value 63.7% to the leading value of 91.2% in 2019. It is also necessary to consider the fact that the category ‘press and media relations with print newspapers/magazines’ is quickly losing its traditionally prominent position in the sphere of public communication (from 64.1% in 2016 to much lower value of 30.2% in 2019) ([ 21 ], p. 61). Such predictions state clearly that media professionals and organisations aiming to engage in public communication need to reconsider their current production practices and the ways they address their target audiences. It seems that some of the previously most important modes of audience address may become less effective or even unsuitable for dissemination of certain types of journalistic products towards certain segments of media audiences.

The trends of increasing amount of mobile phone users and the portable devices’ general popularity have led newsrooms and editorial staffs towards developing their own mobile applications. The emergence and widespread use of ‘intelligent’ mobile phones have also influenced the current forms of ‘citizen journalism’. As the mobile devices are equipped by modern operating systems (e.g. Windows, Android, iOS), recording technologies and Internet‐connected applications, their users are capable of creating photographs and audio‐visual contents of high quality that may be later used by media professionals smoothly and easily. People witnessing various kinds of events regularly send photographs and videos straight to newsrooms and news agencies, facilitating much quicker information dissemination. The reports by ‘eye witnesses’ thus may provide almost complete news material, which helps the journalists to make the news cheaper.

The initial emergence of content created by amateur, Internet‐based journalists (i.e. user‐generated content) is occasionally associated with the events of 9/11 in New York, USA, but more often in the context of publishing information about 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and devastating series of tsunami that resulted in killing 230,000–280,000 people across 14 coastal countries. The British elite newspaper The Guardian first acknowledged the meaning of mobile communication as a way of obtaining information in 2002, by starting its service Mobile Alerts designed to inform interested readers via short text messages (SMS) related to breaking news from politics or sports. In November 2005, website of the elite British newspaper Daily Telegraph started to offer a project involving audio recordings of the most important daily events (prepared and read by professional journalists), becoming the first news portal to do so in the United Kingdom. The content was provided for free and its length was between 25 and 30 min. The data could be downloaded and listened to via computers, iPods or MP3 players. To expand its mobile and online services, a year later (in 2006), the renowned British news portal associated with the daily newspaper The Guardian decided to develop a project of publishing analyses and commentaries related to recent news and events on their website. The aim was to offer the readers as wide spectrums of opinions as possible. More than 100 commentators and experts from all fields of social life were involved. Moreover, www.theguardian.com started to offer a service named GuardianWitness in April 2013, providing its users with a space for publishing their own audio‐visual content related to eye‐witnessing experience. Another example of publishing user‐generated media content is the platform YouTube Direct operated by the streaming giant www.youtube.com . This service allows professional editorial offices to browse, obtain and—after receiving owners’ agreements—also publish user‐generated videos and other audio‐visual materials. The users are no more perceived as ordinary recipients; many of them are turning into reporters or photographers instead.

Slovak media have explored possibilities of mobile journalism and user‐generated content thoroughly as well. A mobile application of the Slovak daily SME started to function in 2011. Other popular elements of mobile journalism are the citizen journalism platforms Som reportér [I Am a Reporter] developed by the nationwide commercial television channel TV Markíza and Tip od vás [ A Tip from You ] operated by the most read Slovak tabloid, the daily newspaper Nový čas . However, while news applications for mobile phones and tablets are not so special and innovative anymore, other publishing segments (e.g. academic and scholarly publishing) seem to implement such innovations quite rarely. However, the renowned academic journal from the field of media studies titled Communication Today seems to be an exception, the journal published by the University of SS. Cyril and Methodius in Trnava, more specifically by the Faculty of Mass Media Communication, is the first Central European academic periodical that publishes its issues also via mobile applications for iOS and Android. The journal’s editor‐in‐chief Martin Solík explains: ‘We are the first scientific journal in Slovakia or Czech Republic to publish digitally, via ‘tablets’ as such. The first day of being available on the App Store brought exactly 30 downloads. Our expectations had been, in fact, quite modest, as we were aware that as an academic journal, we attracted a much narrower target group than any lifestyle magazine’ [ 22 ]. The application is nowadays used by more than 1500 unique readers and remains the only one of its kind, at least in terms of Central European scientific periodicals.

4. Social media as news sources

Development of online social networks was marked by technological advancements and employment of Web 2.0 in 2004. This new dynamic type of providing Web content allowed the users to create their own products and thus became very attractive also in relation to business activities. At present, a wide spectrum of social networks is available. These media ‘unite’ their users on basis of different communication platforms. As a general rule, we may talk about ‘universal’ social networks without any specific thematic (content) orientation that provide communication among individual users: Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Instagram or Slovak Pokec [ Small Talk ] may be categorised here. However, there are also various specialised social media that integrate users in accordance with their common interests and hobbies. For example, LinkedIn offers communication activities related to professional growth, human resources and doing business.

According to Velšic’s research report, in 2012 the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs conducted a research regarding the use of social networks, related communication activities and levels of digital literacy their users reach. The research sample consisted of 1135 respondents. The highest percentage of social network users was in the group of people aged 14–24 (more than 90% of the surveyed respondents). For comparison, only 45% of respondents aged 45–54 and not more than 8% of seniors used online social media. Of course, geographic and socio‐economic differences between Slovak regions played a certain role there—a lot more users of social networks lived in cities and towns than in villages and rural areas. In terms of economic activity, Slovak social media users were predominantly students (90%) but also employed people (75%), businessmen and women on maternity leave [ 23 ]. A more up‐to‐date statistics claims that in October 2014, Facebook was used by 2.2 million Slovaks, of which 1.16 million were women; moreover, 2/3 of all users were younger than 35 years old. Social media such as Facebook and Instagram were identified as a very essential part of younger generations’ social life and cultural activities (almost 100% of young people used their own social media accounts) [ 24 ].

Research data originating in other EU countries clearly show that the situation there is similar to Slovakia. Spending time on social networks is one of the most frequent online activities. According to Eurostat, 46% of EU residents aged 16–74 use the Internet in order to visit social networks, mostly Facebook or Twitter. Social networks are used by at least six out of ten people in Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Luxemburg, the United Kingdom, Island and Norway; data from the Netherlands suggest that in this country, social networks are also used widely (by 59% of Dutch respondents) [ 8 ].

Trying to understand the ways Internet users search for news and information while on social networks, Hermida states that audience behaviour varies from platform to platform, particularly between the two more important networks for news— Facebook and Twitter . On Facebook , he explains, news exposure and consumption are more of a by‐product of spending time on the service. The incidental news exposure on Facebook contrasts with more purposeful news‐seeking on Twitter . Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat tend to attract younger users than Facebook or Twitter, although Facebook , YouTube and Twitter are the most important online sources for news overall [ 25 ]. Newman, Fletcher, Levy and Nielsen interpret results of the recent study commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism that aims to better understand how the news is being consumed in a range of countries (26 countries all over the world):

Across the entire sample, more than half of respondents (51%) say they use social media as a source of news each week. Around one in ten (12%) says it is their main source. Facebook is by far the most important network for finding, reading, watching and sharing news.

Social media are significantly more important for women (who are also less likely to go directly to a news website or app) and for the young people. More than a quarter of people aged 18–24 (28%) say social media are their main source of news—more than television (24%) for the first time.

Although publishers and technology platforms are pushing online news video hard for commercial reasons, the research data provide evidence that most consumers are still resistant. More than 3/4 of the respondents (78%) say they still mostly rely on text. When pressed, the main reasons people give for not using more video are that they find reading news quicker and more convenient (41%) and the annoyance of pre‐roll advertisements (35%) [ 26 ].

Besides offering personal profiles of individual users, social networks also include accounts operated by commercial subjects and public institutions, firms and associations, e.g. universities. Even in the sector of education, it is crucial to employ appropriate forms of marketing communication in order to ‘stay in touch’ with the target audiences (see, e.g. Ref. [ 27 ]). Naturally, the ‘traditional’ media outlets—the press, radio stations or television channels—are no exceptions, either. The daily newspaper SME established its official account on Facebook in 2008 to provide hypertext references to the most interesting topics published on www.sme.sk and in the press version. As the communication via social media is highly interactive, the users are able to evaluate shared contributions through ‘likes’ and disseminate them further by ‘sharing’ and thus adding the content to their personal profiles. SME ’s account on Facebook is watched by almost 110,000 users [ 28 ]. For comparison, the account of the daily newspaper Pravda is ‘liked’ by approximately 44,000 users [ 29 ].

The fact that social media may be defined as tools for interaction between journalists and recipients was also confirmed by research findings. Murár claims that research data gathered from 20 professional journalists show an interesting shift in the preferred forms of feedback. The ‘traditional’ forms of feedback (e.g. letters, phone calls) have been replaced by SMS, e‐mails and reactions received through Facebook or Twitter. The social media also positively influence the overall quality of the published content as it is closely watched by the public and media producers are very well aware of that. The tendency mostly leads towards further development of journalistic reporting style and thus aims to better meet the readers’ expectations and preferences, e.g. by creation of attractive headlines, shorter sentences, interesting subheads, etc. [ 30 ]. However, it is still very important to offer added value of the published news in relation to the reader—this added value decides whether a specific contribution will be discussed further or not. After all, The Guardian ’s digital chief Aron Pilhofer says: ‘I feel very strongly that digital journalism needs to be a conversation with readers. This is one, if not the most important area of emphasis that traditional newsrooms are actually ignoring. You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community—that’s a monumental mistake. Any site that moves away from comments is a plus for sites like ours. Readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism’ [ 31 ].

The virtual environment created by online social media is also special because of the ways it encourages people to ‘join in’, to participate in various activities bound to the social network. Albinsson and Perera see this issue from the perspective of consumer activism: ‘The virtual world has undeniably revolutionised consumer activism. Not only is there a vast amount of information at the tip of one’s fingers, there is also the capacity to send out mass e‐mails, share videos and sign petitions with the click of a button. Thus, with the advent of template e‐mails and the ‘share’ or ‘forward’ buttons, consumer action has become much less costly in terms of resources, including time, money, and thought’ [ 32 ]. These facts must be acknowledged by companies selling their products through social networks but also by those who financially rely on additional dissemination of their contents thanks to massive ‘sharing’. Follrichová observes that online advertisers, knowing what pages are visited by their target audiences most often and thus able to obtain geographical ‘coordinates’ of their customers, may address the customers in more individualised and accurate ways. However, this kind of information is often gathered not by the content producers but rather by commercial IT companies [ 33 ].

Newman discusses the emerging trends in news dissemination through social networks by mentioning various new features and elements employed by the world’s most successful social networks. In 2015, the author mentions, Snapchat Discover led the charge in January by inviting publishers to create ‘native’ and mobile experiences on their platform. Facebook was quick to follow with Instant Articles designed to create a faster experience and promised publishers greater reach along with up to 100% of advertising revenues. Furthermore, the relaunched Apple News also required media companies to publish content directly into their platform. However, Twitter Moments is mostly about creating native experiences but interestingly involves reverse publishing that content within news sites to attract more people to Twitter [ 34 ]. As Newman remarks, for publishers, these moves raise huge dilemmas—if more consumption moves to platforms like Facebook , Twitter or Snapchat , it will be ‘harder to build direct relationships with users and monetise content’ ([ 34 ], p. 4). But, on the other hand, if they do nothing, it will be almost impossible to engage mainstream audiences who are spending more time with these platforms.

These new ventures are only a few examples of how the social networks compete to attract other media producers, advertisers and, most importantly, media audiences deciding whether to look for news and opinions related to the current affairs predominantly on Facebook, Twitter , Snapchat or other popular social networks. It is beyond any doubts that the online media and Internet‐connected communication forms are transforming the traditional patterns of journalistic production bound to the press and information offered by radio or television. The evolution of media and technologies they use is taking a huge part in the emergence of new forms of arranging and disseminating the media content. Considering today’s communication tendencies, it is no surprise that many users of the online social networks are able to ‘keep up’ with the latest information regarding domestic and foreign affairs without buying one issue of a newspaper or visiting a single online news portal.

5. On innovation in journalism

Innovation is nowadays perceived as one of the most crucial tools for social and economic development of the society. Implementation of specific innovations is anchored in many strategic documents, national and international alike (see, e.g. Ref. [ 35 ]). Innovations in terms of journalism are related, on the one hand, to the use of the Internet in the processes of creating, distributing and searching for the journalistic content; on the other hand, innovation activities also involve organisational measures associated with journalistic work, management of human resources and new business models implemented by publishing houses and editors. Heinrich points out that these innovations ‘not only alter journalistic practice as such, but challenge journalism to incorporate cross‐platform networks in various stages of the process of news production’ ([ 15 ], p. 2). A multiplatform structure of journalism is evolving. Pavlik reminds that journalism and the media as such are surrounded by many changes and shifts in media logic determined by technological advancements and economic uncertainty on a global scale. Innovation, according to the author, is the key factor influencing ‘vitality’ of the media, and it builds upon four basic principles:

Research and development

Freedom of expression

Objective and impartial news‐making

Complying with ethical codes and normative frameworks [ 36 ]

As of innovations in terms of journalism, it seems that the shifts are manifesting themselves predominantly within the sector of online journalism, especially mobile applications (e.g. the use of interactive design elements and the responsive Web, thanks to which the content easily adjusts itself to the device that is used to access information). Online news portals are following these trends as well, for instance, by adapting their structure and composition to the technological means of communication in order to wholly use their advantages and make the content easier to access. Arrangement of texts in the online issues is very different in comparison with the traditional press but also with ‘newspapers’ designed to mobile phones and tablets. Nielsen’s long‐term research on the issues related to reading web pages claims that the processes of reception on the Internet significantly differ from those bound to reading the press. The results of the author’s ‘eye‐tracking’ study involving 232 individual users suggest that an ‘F‐shaped’ strategy is employed here:

Users start to ‘scan’ the page through horizontal eye movements, generally at the top.

They focus on the middle part of the content.

At last they move their eyes vertically, top to bottom.

According to Nielsen, the users of the Web tend to ‘scan’ information (79%) instead of reading them (16%), focusing on the first and last letters in the individual words [ 37 ].

Implementation of strategic innovation in journalism has encountered serious problems as well, since business activities bound to journalism often aim to achieve rather short‐term objectives. Even today’s print newspapers (and the print media in general) place emphasis on meeting deadlines (these are based on predetermined production cycles) and fulfilling strategic plans related to advertising sales. It means that many innovation activities are only short‐lived. On the other hand, some innovative production procedures have resulted in many shifts and changes in editorial practices. These include optimisation of work, new publication strategies associated with the Internet and mobile devices (‘mobile first’), content creation that corresponds with demands of the used media or employment of Snapchat in terms of journalistic work. As Eldridge summarises, it does not matter whether we are discussing journalistic bloggers on ‘J‐blogs’, journalists’ use of social media, interactive live blogs or the work of more activist‐oriented interloper media such as WikiLeaks ; the work of new digital journalists is increasingly commonplace and very visible ([ 3 ], p. 45).

Quandt and Singer suggest that ‘journalism in the future is both distinct from other forms of digital content and integrated with those forms to a far greater extent than in either the past or the present’. The authors also remind that the mainstream news organisations ‘still wield enormous power through both the collective capabilities of their staffs and their own economic heft within their communities—professional and commercial power that individuals simply do not possess and, as individuals, will not possess in the foreseeable future’ [ 38 ].

6. Conclusion

Focusing on journalism and its place in the globalised society of the twenty‐first century, we have to conclude that the processes of making news and publishing opinions on public affairs are transforming radically. McNair notes that the dominant model of journalism of the twentieth century, which used to be embodied by the professional journalists producing objective and reliable information, is currently fragmented due to the influence of new media and technologies [ 39 ]. Despite many pessimistic visions proposed by other authors, McNair does not worry about the future of journalism itself: ‘Journalism will not die out in this environment, because it is so needed on so many social, political and cultural levels. Journalism has a future. It will evolve, as it has evolved already, from the antique styles of the early newsbooks to the gloss and sheen of the modern prime time news bulletin… But how will it change and will the change be for the better, or for the worse?’ ([ 39 ], p. 21). However, other forms of journalism, e.g. those related to the so‐called citizen journalism, have changed as well. It seems that almost anyone who is able to access the Internet is also free to publish and share their opinions and may thus provide a certain (critical) alternative to the dominant mainstream media. Many Internet users belonging to younger and middle‐aged generations have adopted the products of citizen journalism as their key and regular information sources.

We are witnessing the evolution of new media outlets; these development tendencies are manifesting themselves across all spheres of the industrial segment of journalism, on a global scale. Worldwide economic indicators associated with the press market—most of all newspaper circulation and advertising sales—suggest that the crisis scenarios, according to which the traditional press will cease to exist completely, are most likely exaggerative. However, we have to accept the fact that the dominant position of newspapers as the most prominent information sources is gone forever. Along with analysing the technical and technological shifts in news‐making, it is also necessary to constantly reconsider the readers’ preferences. While the traditional press is still popular with the middle‐aged and older generations of media recipients, the young people seem to abandon the long‐existing means of mass communication in favour of small screens of their mobile phones or tablets; almost all of them watch or follow digital information sources and accounts of the mainstream (and often also alternative or citizen) media producers available via social networks. Online communication’s importance is growing significantly. This development tendency will only intensify in the near future—the previously mentioned research data by European Communication Monitor 2016 predicting future development of communication trends claim mobile communication is to become the most important form of audience address in 2019, closely followed by social media and social networks, online communication via websites, e‐mail, intranets and press and media relations with online newspapers/magazines ([ 21 ], p. 61). Sociocultural factors, rituals and habits of the readers are also of high importance. We may state that the key to economic success and popularity—regardless of which kind of media or distribution channels we are talking about—always lies in understanding the audiences and their behavioural patterns, expectations and needs.

The need for creating and implementing innovations and innovative processes is one of the most essential perspectives bound to today’s journalistic production. The issue of universal design of communication devices is being discussed very often; it is true that journalistic products should be disseminated via user‐friendly platforms and interfaces so that all people, including those suffering from serious physical or mental impairments, would be able to access them easily. Contemporary journalism needs to implement innovations very quickly; online versions of the press and mobile applications have to closely watch all emerging trends in digital communication in order to maintain their competitiveness. It seems that social media are one of the most important communication spaces of today. Their future development will—most likely—determine new forms and variations of journalism, whether those bound to trained professionals or those created and disseminated by other types of producers (e.g. citizen journalists and the like). As noted by Pravdová, the first places in the script—regardless of how and where the journalistic contents are published—seem to be reserved for topics which are more entertaining or shocking for the readers, i.e. those which contain more tabloid than serious traits. The authors seldom have the ambition to offer traditional journalistic ‘bonuses’ (clarification of causes, consequences, relations and connections); instead, they tend to base the production and interpretation framework of the acquired information on specific types of information‐entertainment hybrids. That is why the academic discourse on the related topics has been rather critical and sometimes even unable to address the ongoing changes objectively [ 40 ]. According to Eldridge, the emphasis on novelty and revolution ‘lent itself to descriptive writing, and technological shifts and radical change were discussed from this ‘novelty’ perspective’. The author perceives this focus as misleading and insufficient for assessing the impact on journalism and journalism studies that accompanied ‘the digital turn’ ([ 3 ], p. 46).

Today’s practices employed by Slovak newsrooms and editorial teams suggest that the ever‐growing portfolio of online activities is very demanding in terms of human resources—’multimedia journalists’ and highly media literate professionals are needed urgently. However, the current economic situation of the newspaper publishers does not favour the traditional press, and many skilled journalists abandon their hard‐won editorial positions to succeed in different and more financially interesting professions (e.g. they become PR managers, spokesmen or even politicians). Editorial offices therefore strive to find an optimal set of economic and personal interconnections between their print and online redactions, mostly with regard to publishing houses’ priorities and economic imperatives. Since this transformation is continual and may take long years, only the future will show whether their current solutions are adequate and prospective or not.


This chapter was elaborated within the research project supported by the Grant Agency of the Ministry of Education of the Slovak Republic and the Slovak Academy of Sciences (VEGA) No. 1/0611/16 titled ‘Multi‐platform Concepts of Journalism in the Context of Development of Digital Technologies in Media Environment in the Slovak Republic’.

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  • A kinder, gentler news media
  • Operation: Buy yourself a parade
  • Rallying ’round the flag
  • “Salute to military” ads canceled
  • Tell the truth, stay alive
  • The windbags of war
  • Absent with no malice
  • Anonymity for rape victims . . .
  • An exception to the rule
  • The boy with a broken heart
  • Civilly suitable
  • Creating a victim
  • “Everyone already knew”
  • An exceptional case
  • Innocent victims
  • Minor infraction
  • Names make news
  • Naming a victim
  • Naming “johns”
  • Profile of controversy
  • What the media all missed
  • Punishing plagiarizers
  • Sounding an alarm on AIDS
  • Suffer the children
  • Anchor’s away
  • The day the earth stood still
  • Doing your own ethics audit
  • Good guys, bad guys and TV news
  • Is it just me, or . . . ?
  • The Post’s exam answer story
  • TV station “teases” suicide
  • Yanking Doonesbury
  • The year in review
  • Colorado media’s option play
  • Deadly lesson
  • Deciding which critically ill person gets coverage
  • When journalists play God . . .
  • A delicate balance
  • The Fallen Servant
  • Handle with care
  • It’s the principle, really
  • Killing news
  • Maybe what seems so right is wrong
  • On the line
  • Protest and apology after Daily Beacon story
  • Red flag for badgering
  • Sharing the community’s grief
  • The “super-crip” stereotype
  • “And then he said *&%*!!!”
  • When big is not better
  • When the KKK comes calling
  • Not the straight story
  • Agreeing to disagree
  • All in the family
  • Family feud
  • Author! Author!
  • The Bee that roared
  • Brewing controversy
  • Building barriers
  • Other views from librarians
  • The ethics of information selling
  • Close to home
  • Family ties
  • How now, sacred cow?
  • The ties that bind
  • “Like any other story”
  • When your newspaper is the news
  • Not friendly fire
  • Overdraft on credibility?
  • The problem is the writing
  • Written rules can be hazardous
  • Project censored, sins of omission and the hardest “W” of all – “why”
  • Risking the newsroom’s image
  • The Media School

Ethics Case Studies

Ethics cases online.

This set of cases has been created for teachers, researchers, professional journalists and consumers of news to help them explore ethical issues in journalism. The cases raise a variety of ethical problems faced by journalists, including such issues as privacy, conflict of interest, reporter- source relationships, and the role of journalists in their communities.

The initial core of this database comes from a series of cases developed by Barry Bingham, Jr., and published in his newsletter, FineLine. The school is grateful to Bingham for his permission to make these cases available to a wider audience.

You may download cases for classes, research or personal use. Permission is granted for academic use of these cases, including inclusion in course readers for specific college courses. This permission does not extend to the republication of the cases in books, journals or electronic form.

Note: We are indebted to Professor Emeritus David Boeyink, who developed this project several years ago.

Aiding law enforcement

  • “Ad”mission of guilt: Court-ordered ads raise ethical questions
  • “Do I stop him?”: Reporter’s arresting question is news
  • Fairness: A casualty of the anti-drug crusade
  • Newspaper joins war against drugs: Standard-Times publishes photos of all suspected drug offenders
  • Have I got a deal for you!: The line between cooperation and collusion
  • Identifying what’s right: Photographer’s ID used in hostage release
  • Is “Enough!” too much?: Editors split on anti-drug coupons
  • Issues of bench and bar: In this case, a TV reporter is the judge
  • Knowing when to say “when!”: Drawing the line at cooperating with authorities
  • Stop! This is a warning . . . : Suppressing news at police request
  • Strange Bedfellows: Federal agents in a TV newsroom

Being first

  • Gambling with being first: The media drive to score on the Isiah Thomas story
  • Playing into a hoaxster’s hands: How the Virginia media got suckered
  • “They said it first”: Is that reason for going for the story?

Bottom-line decisions

  • Is it news, ad or infomercial?: The line between news and advertising is going, going . . .
  • Games publishers play: Allowing an advertiser to call the shots
  • An offer you can refuse: The selling of Cybill to the Enquirer
  • An oily gift horse: saying “No!” to Exxon
  • Public service. . .or “news-mercials”: The blending of television news and advertising

Controversial photos

  • As life passes by: A journalist’s role: watch and wait
  • Bringing death close: Publishing photographs of human tragedy
  • A careless step, a rash of calls: “Unusual” photo of AIDS walkathon raises hackles” 
  • Distortion of reality?: “Punk for Peace” photograph draws fire
  • Of life and death: Photos capture woman’s last moments
  • “A photo that had to be used”: Anatomy of a newspaper’s decision
  • A picture of controversy: Pulitzer photos show diverse editorial standards

Covering politics

  • Freedom of political expression: Do journalists forfeit their right?
  • Brother, can you spare some time?: TV stations give candidates air time
  • Columnist’s crusade OK with Seattle Times
  • Kiss and tell: Publishing details of a mayor’s personal life
  • The making of a governor: How media fantasy swayed an election
  • Past but not over: When history collides with the Present
  • Of publishers and politics: Byline protest threatened at Star Tribune
  • To tell the truth: Why I didn’t; why I regret it
  • Truth & Consequences: The public’s right to know . . . at what cost?
  • “Truth boxes”: Media monitoring of TV campaign ads
  • When journalists become flacks: Two views on what to do and when to do it

Getting the story

  • A book for all journalists who believe: Accuracy is our highest ethical debate
  • The Billboard Bandit: Did the newspaper get graffiti on its reputation
  • Food for thought: You are what you eat . . . and do
  • Grand jury probe: TV journalists indicted for illegal dogfight
  • Judgment on journalists: Do they defiantly put themselves “above the law?”
  • Lessons from an ancient spirit: Why I participated in a peyote ritual
  • Lying for the story . . . :Or things they don’t teach in journalism school
  • Newspaper nabs Atlanta’s Dahmer: Another predator who should’ve been stopped: Was it homophobia?
  • One way to a good end: Reporter cuts corners to test capital drug program
  • Over the fence: A case of crossing the line for a story
  • “Psst! Pass it on!”: Why are journalists spreading rumors?
  • Rules aren’t neat on Crack Street: Journalists know the rules; they also know that the rules don’t always apply when confronted with life-threatening situations
  • “Someone had to be her advocate”: A newspaper’s crusade to keep a child’s death from being forgotten
  • Trial by Fire: Boy “hero” story tests media
  • Trial by proximity: How close is too close for a jury and a reporter?
  • Using deceit to get the truth: When there’s just no other way
  • When advocacy is okay: Access is an acceptable journalist’s cause
  • White lies: Bending the truth to expose injustice
  • Witness to an execution: KQED sues to videotape capital punishment

Handling sources

  • Are we our brother’s keeper? . . . You bet we are!
  • Betraying a trust: Our story wronged a naive subject
  • Broken Promise: Breaching a reporter-source confidence
  • “But I thought you were . . .”: When a source doesn’t know you are a reporter
  • “Can I take it back?”: Why we told our source ‘yes’
  • Competitive disadvantage: Business blindsided by unnamed sources
  • Getting it on tape: What if you don’t tell them?
  • The great quote question: How much tampering with quotations can journalists ethically do?
  • Let’s make a deal!: The dangers of trading with sources
  • A phone-y issue?: Caller ID raises confidentiality questions
  • The source wanted out: Why our decision was ‘no’
  • The story that died in a lie: Questions about truthfulness kill publication
  • Thou shalt not break thy promise: Supreme Court rules on betraying sources’ anonymity 
  • Thou shalt not concoct thy quote: Supreme Court decides on the rules of the quotation game
  • Thou shalt not trick thy source: Many a slip twixt the promise and the page
  • Too good to be true: Blowing the whistle on a lying source
  • Vulnerable sources and journalistic responsibility: Are we our brother’s keeper?
  • The way things used to be . . . : Who says this new “objectivity” is better?
  • When a story just isn’t worth it: Holding information to protect a good source
  • When a story source threatens suicide: “I’m going to kill myself!”

Invading privacy

  • The ethics of “outing”: Breaking the silence code on homosexuality
  • “For personal reasons”: Balancing privacy with the right to know
  • Intruding on grief: Does the public really have a “need to know?”
  • Intruding on private pain: Emotional TV segment offers hard choice
  • Seeing both sides: A personal and professional dilemma
  • Two views on “outing”: When the media do it for you
  • Two views on “outing”: When you do it yourself
  • Unwanted Spotlight: When private people become part of a public story
  • Whose right is it anyway?: Videotape of accident victim raises questions about rights to privacy

Military Issues

  • The death of a soldier: Hometown decision for hometown hero
  • Firing at Round Rock: Editor says “unpatriotic” story led to dismissal  
  • A kinder, gentler news media?: Post-war coverage shows sensitivity to families
  • Operation: Buy yourself a parade: New York papers pitch in for hoopla celebrating hide-and-seek war
  • Rallying ’round the flag: The press as U.S. propagandists
  • “Salute to military” ads canceled
  • Tell the truth, stay alive: In covering a civil war, honesty is the only policy
  • The windbags of war: Television’s gung-ho coverage of the Persian Gulf situation

Naming newsmakers

  • Absent with no malice: Omitting part of the story for a reason
  • Anonymity for rape victims . . . : should the rules change?
  • An exception to the rule: a decision to change names
  • The boy with a broken heart: Special problems when juveniles are newsmakers
  • Civilly suitable: If law requires less, should media reveal more?
  • Creating a victim: Plot for a fair story may not be foolproof
  • “Everyone already knew”: A weak excuse for abandoning standards
  • An exceptional case: Hartford Courant names rape victim
  • Innocent victims: Naming the guilty . . . but guiltless
  • Minor infraction: A newspaper’s case for breaking the law
  • Names make news: One newspaper debates when and why
  • Naming a victim: When do you break your own rule?
  • Naming “johns”: Suicide raises ethical questions about policy
  • Profile of controversy: New York Times reporter defends story on Kennedy rape claimant 
  • What the media all missed: Times reporter finally sets record straight on Palm Beach rape profile
  • Punishing plagiarizers: Does public exposure fit the sin?
  • Sounding an alarm on AIDS: Spreading the word about someone who’s spreading the disease
  • Suffer the Children: Journalists are guilty of child misuse

Other topics

  • Anchor’s away: Where in the world is she? Or does it matter?
  • The day the earth stood still: How the media covered the “earthquake”
  • Good guys, bad guys and TV news: How television and other media promote police violence
  • The Post’s exam answer story
  • TV station “teases” suicide
  • The year in review: 1990’s biggest ethical headaches and journalistic bloopers

Sensitive news topics

  • Colorado media’s option play: Most passed; did they also fumble?
  • Deadly lesson: Warning about sexual asphyxiation
  • A delicate balance: Mental breakdowns & news coverage
  • The Fallen Servant: When a hero is not a hero
  • Handle with care: Priest murder story required extra sensitivity
  • It’s the principle, really: Timing and people’s money matter, too
  • Killing news: Responsible coverage of suicides
  • Maybe what seems so right is wrong: A medical condition media-generated money can’t cure
  • On the line: A reporter’s job vs. human decency
  • Red flag for badgering: Ombudsman takes sportswriter to task
  • Sharing the community’s grief: Little Rock news coverage of three teen-age suicides
  • Suffer the children: Was story on molestation worth the human cost?
  • The “super-crip” stereotype: Press victimization of disabled people
  • “And then he said *&%*!!!”: When sexist and vulgar remarks are new
  • When big is not better: Playing down a story for the community good
  • When the KKK comes calling: What’s the story?
  • Not the straight story: Can misleading readers ever be justified?

Workplace issues

  • Agreeing to disagree: How one newspaper handles off-hour activities
  • All in the family: When a journalist’s spouse creates a conflict of interests
  • Family feud: Handling conflicts between journalists and partners
  • Author! Author!: Ethical dilemmas when reporters turn author
  • The Bee that roared: Taking a stand for editorial independence
  • Brewing controversy: The commercialization of Linda Ellerbee
  • Building barriers: The case against financial involvement
  • Other views from librarians: When interests of client and newsroom conflict
  • The ethics of information selling: Problems for library reference services
  • Close to home: When your newsroom is part of the story
  • Family Ties: When are relationships relationships relevant?
  • How now, sacred cow?: United Way’s favored treatment by the media
  • The ties that bind: Publisher’s link to United Way raises questions
  • “Like any other story”: Can it be when it’s your union vs. your paper?
  • When your newspaper is the news: Editors discuss their experiences
  • Not friendly fire: News director at odds with CBS over story
  • Overdraft on credibility?: Reporter faces conflict-of-interest charges
  • Written rules can be hazardous: A lawyer views ethics codes
  • Project censored, sins of omission and the hardest “W” of all – “why”
  • Risking the newsroom’s image: How editors, in a good cause, can strain independence

Ethics Case Studies resources and social media channels

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  • Published: 10 July 2023

The old-new epistemology of digital journalism: how algorithms and filter bubbles are (re)creating modern metanarratives

  • Luca Serafini 1  

Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume  10 , Article number:  395 ( 2023 ) Cite this article

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  • Cultural and media studies

In journalism studies, the advent of the World Wide Web and the rise of online journalism are generally associated with going beyond the objective, normative paradigm associated with the principles of philosophical and scientific modernity towards a postmodern paradigm centred on subjectivity and relativism. This article offers an alternative reading of the epistemology of online journalism: the fragmentation of audiences into homophilic networks, the formation of ideological bubbles, and the growing polarisation caused by algorithms make the contents circulating online a reintroduction of modernity’s metanarratives. These metanarratives in no way correspond to the principles typical of postmodernism, such as the equivalence of interpretations and openness to dialogue. Journalistic content also comes under this charge: although it conveys narratives that are subjective, they are perceived as absolute truths inside the information bubbles in which they circulate. This phenomenon is caused by “information platformization” processes. Based on these premises, a new definition of online journalism is proposed: rather than “postmodern”, it can be better understood as a fulfilment of the foundational principles of modernism, but in a subjective form.

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Epistemology has proven to be a fertile field for journalism studies. Over the years, the discipline has developed in multiple directions and across varying levels of analysis. There have been studies on the epistemology of specific kinds of journalism, such as investigative journalism (Ettema and Glasser, 1985 ); and on the journalism conveyed by specific media, such as television (Ekström, 2002 ). With the advent of digital media, a new field defined as “Epistemologies of Digital Journalism” (Ekström and Westlund, 2019 ) emerged. A longitudinal study on digital journalism – that is, journalism in which editorial content is distributed and consumed through a digital medium – has shown how epistemology represents one of the most significant areas of research carried out in recent years (Steensen et al., 2019 ). Within this specific field of study, changes in the languages and practices of journalism brought about by the rise of digital media have been viewed by some scholars as the manifestation of a “postmodern turn” (Gade, 2011 ; Bogaerts and Carpenter, 2013 ; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2017 ). Underpinning this interpretation is a more general association between postmodernism and digital media that also applies to information when it is conveyed primarily by online media.

This article argues, however, that this interpretation is not entirely adequate to describe the mechanisms of online information production and consumption over the last 10 to 15 years. In this article, we will therefore attempt to define a new epistemological paradigm. We will do so by developing a conceptual argument, and not through the presentation of empirical findings. The aim is in fact to operate a terminological and conceptual redefinition of phenomena that, in theoretical studies on journalism, have so far mostly been framed within different paradigms. Starting from this theoretical and epistemological redefinition, the aim is for a path of enquiry to be opened for future empirical studies on journalism that frame the data collected within the new paradigm proposed here. In our current scenario, news narratives are increasingly conditioned by algorithm-driven processes of selective exposure and by a consequent formation of ideological and cultural bubbles. Within this framework, the thesis of this paper is that journalistic narratives increasingly take the form of metanarratives typical of the philosophical and scientific discourses of modernity, since they aim to provide their polarised audiences with a meaning that is absolute, complete, and impermeable to factual denial. This phenomenon is antithetical to some of the main assumptions of postmodernism: that all interpretations are equivalent, that there exists an openness to dialogue, and that texts and narratives possess a plurality of meanings. Consequently, in the algorithmic web of ideological bubbles, contemporary journalism can better be defined as a reintroduction and subjective form of fulfilment of the paradigm underpinning the modern normative model. Although subjectivism is the characteristic feature of online news narratives, this does not lead to the assumption that all interpretations are legitimate in the absence of an absolute truth; rather, it results in a clash between narratives, each of which seeks to prevail as an absolute truth within its respective information bubble. Due to information “platformization” mechanisms, journalism reinforces these tendencies, and it too is absorbed into the more generalised reintroduction of an epistemological model that is much closer to modernity than postmodernity.

The argument developed here refers to the way in which digital technologies have influenced journalistic practices in the global North, especially in Europe and the United States, and is thus limited to this social and geographical context. The clarification is important to avoid what Mabweazara ( 2014 : 2) described as a tendency on the part of many scholars to “seek explanatory frameworks in the uneven distribution and use of technological resources between the economically developed North and the poor South”. With regard to the countries of the global South and especially African countries, we will only mention some aspects related to the relationships between elements such as digital literacy, the frequently limited access of audiences to the products of digital journalism, and even the pre-digital polarisation of society with algorithmic news dissemination processes. It is hoped that these suggestions will enable future research focused, for example, on African countries to explore in more detail the links between the epistemological paradigm proposed here and what has already been termed an “African digital journalism epistemology” (Mabweazara, 2014 ).

From modern to postmodern journalism

The concept of “postmodern journalism” refers, by antithesis, to the “modern” paradigm that preceded it. In this sense, what happened in journalism is considered as a particular manifestation of a more general phenomenon, namely, the transition in the cultural and philosophical sphere from modernism to postmodernism. According to Jean-François Lyotard’s well-known thesis, postmodernism can be defined as scepticism toward the metanarratives that structured the modern philosophical discourse (Lyotard, 1984 ): the systems of thought that claimed to provide overarching explanations, such as the Enlightenment, Idealism, and Marxism. All these philosophical movements and systems contained unitary principles, the bases of which made it possible to encompass the meaning of reality (Reason, Spirit, the laws of materialism). Postmodernism signalled the winding down of these grand narratives and, simultaneously, of the emancipatory projects that philosophical systems, understood as universalising forms of knowledge, bear with them. For Lyotard, in the pre-industrial age the grand narratives that ensured the existence and preservation of a social order belonged to the realm of myth; with modernity, a new set of narratives arose, whose cornerstone was the scientific rationality professed by Enlightenment thinkers. As Isaiah Berlin ( 1980 : 1–32) explains, the Enlightenment proclaimed the autonomy of reason and the natural sciences, while at the same time rejecting the authority and tradition of all forms of transcendental and nonrational knowledge. For Lyotard, with postmodernism the modernist faith in reason lost its self-evident character: many discourses that were modelled on the scientific rationality promoted by the Enlightenment went into crisis. These discourses had taken the form of metanarratives founded on objectivity, universality, and certain knowledge; they were rational and uncontaminated by anything subjective or transcendent to reality.

Journalism was among the discourses that entered into crisis with the postmodern turn. Between the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, its normative model had been forged from the Enlightenment spirit, the idea that objective methods and rational procedures could be used to describe reality (Schudson, 2018 : 29). The paradigm of objectivity is thus generally viewed as a direct application of scientific modernism to journalism (Schudson, 1990 ; Durham, 1998 ). This model of objective journalism took shape in the United States during the 1830s and was developed more fully beginning in the 1920s, when, partly due to the need to make journalism a fully-fledged professional activity, it was codified through specific procedures and rules. As Walter Lippmann ( 1922 ) noted at the time, this need was motivated in part by a desire to distinguish journalism from the activities of public relations: the latter were focused on persuasion, while the former aimed at the objective reporting of facts. This need for distinction turned objective journalism into a defensive, strategic ritual (Tuchman, 1972 ), put into practice to avoid the influence exerted by professional communicators. But, as Nerone ( 2013 ) points out, journalism is also an -ism, and as such shares the characteristics of a belief system. Consequently, objectivity was not embraced as a journalistic norm purely as a defensive paradigm but also as the expression of a metanarrative: from this perspective, journalism could and should report factual truths. Consensus regarding the rules of the profession was based on objectivity understood in terms of an ideology (Schudson, 2001 : 151). Any challenge to journalism’s claim to present itself as a “bearer of truth” was therefore seen as a challenge to its normative paradigm, and the concept of impartiality and modernist assumptions regarding the role of journalism as a bulwark of democracy fused into its professional mission (McNair, 2012 ; Schudson, 2008 ). For a long time, the principles of modern scientific rationality, which hinged on a description and study of reality uncontaminated by subjective opinions, ensured that emotions were excluded from the reporting of facts (Richard and Rees, 2011; Peters, 2011 : 298). The paradigm of objectivity was thus borrowed from the principles of modern scientific rationality, because “objectivity relies on the modern perception of a textual message – one that is rigid and permanent – it rejects the idea that message reception is a dialogical site with varying possibilities of meaning” (Soffer, 2009 : 474). But a monological conception of this sort “is therefore associated with a single world view that […] sees the world as an object of deduction” (Soffer, 2009 : 477); and this monological voice goes hand-in-hand with the modern scientific perception (Shotter, 1997 : 26).

The fact that journalism’s age of professionalisation, which took place in tandem with the rise of the normative paradigm of objectivity, was defined as “high modernism” in connection with the processes of the 1920s, and “high modernity” in connection with what occurred in the 1950s and 60 s, when objectivity was identified by journalists as both an ideal and a daily practice (Hallin, 1994 ), is therefore not a terminological coincidence but rather the sign of a significant analogy.

Starting in the 1960s and 70 s, however, something different took place: the normative paradigm of journalism came under increasing scrutiny. The historical period when this occurred is no coincidence: these were the years when the rationalist tradition inspired by Descartes was also being critiqued by philosophers, clearing the path to an “affective turn” that accompanied the progressive rise of postmodernism (La Caze and Lloyd, 2011 ). As in philosophical postmodernism, which rejects any scientistic belief in the possibility of an objective account of reality, in journalism, too, a view began to gain ground that the normative model does nothing but reinforce “official” versions of reality propagated by power, a power that holds the means to impose its own symbolic representation of the facts (Jukes, 2020 : 28). Postmodernism does indeed imply the notion that the symbols used to describe reality are nothing but symbols, expressions of subjective choice that, as such, are incapable of describing reality as it truly is (Baudrillard, 1984 : 159–164; Rorty, 1989 ). This also applies, of course, to the linguistic symbols through which journalism reports on reality.

New journalistic models of reporting on reality that emerged during this historical period were to some extent a sign of the times: New Journalism, for example, was defined, significantly, as a “signpost to the postmodern,” because the subjective and narrative form it expressed hewed more closely to the demands of postmodern society (Basu, 2010 ). As Schudson ( 2018 ) points out, during the 1960s and 70 s a more analytical and in many cases interpretive account of reality took hold among journalists – a model he defines as “objectivity 2.0”, marking a first break with the modernist model of “objectivity 1.0”. For all these reasons, the changes that started in the 1960s and 70s and developed more fully in the subsequent decades “could be seen to represent a “postmodern turn” in journalism insofar as they challenge the conventional “grand narratives”, certainties and rationalities that underpin the profession and its practices” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2017 : 98).

It is important to note that this questioning of the “grand narratives” and the concurrent “postmodern turn” are characterised above all by two processes: a shift from (presumed) objective reporting to subjective reporting; and, consequently, a shift from the disembodied rationality typical of the modern scientific paradigm to an increasingly greater presence of emotions in journalistic texts (Jukes, 2020 ). The postmodern turn of the 1960s and 70 s, which, as we have seen, led to postmodern philosophical assumptions being applied to journalism as well, is generally summarised by Nietzsche’s well-known aphorism (Nietzsche, 1967 [1885–1887], aphorism 481): “facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations”. Nietzsche’s aphorism became the emblem of the postmodern paradigm because it clarifies the shift that took place under it, from presumed objectivity to subjectivism. According to the prevailing view in journalism studies, the main components of the postmodern turn of the 1960s and 70 s just described came about because of new technologies and the way they reshaped journalism. As Gade ( 2011 : 126) remarks, “the digital age unleashed already present postmodern forces, creating a networked, interactive, and consumer-oriented era that destroyed the stability of the mass media”.

This transition, which was already visible in the 1960s and 70 s, was brought to maturity primarily by the hybrid media system, in which different types of older and newer media form a system that evolves through mutual interactions (Chadwick, 2013 ), and the affordances Footnote 1 of digital technologies. In line with postmodern assumptions on the loss of boundaries between high culture and pop culture, and the de-differentiation between cultural and social spheres (Lash, 1990 ), online journalism causes a contamination between traditional and digital media, between actors of information (created as much as by users as by professionals), between communicative models (broadcast and conversational), and, above all, between content types (with a progressive mingling of hard and soft news). The typically modern concept of boundary work (Gieryn, 1983 ), understood as what allows a clearly demarcated line to be drawn between what is and is not journalism (Carlson, 2015 ), has faded. The result is a genuine epistemological rupture, definable according to (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2017 : 106) as postmodern in all respects: “The changes occasioned by technological transformations could be understood as a postmodern form of journalism because they have destabilised conventional: (a) physical, stylistic and genre distinctions; (b) differentiations between amateur and professional content; and (c) distinctions around the truth value of objective versus emotional content”.

These factors, often interconnected, have caused a slippage toward an increasingly subjective recounting of facts, leading journalism to gradually lose its self-representation as a bearer of truth and opening the way for perspectivism and relativism. As for the contamination between information actors, the rise of citizen journalism Footnote 2 – of the participatory news consumer (who not only consumes but also produces news) and a general “editorial society” (Hartley, 2000 ), in which citizens act as journalists and no longer trust in journalism as an open system – has led to news production that is increasingly contaminated by subjective points of view. The postmodern turn must therefore be understood as the rise of a biographical society, in which life stories are everywhere (Plummer, 2001 : 78). As noted by Papacharissi ( 2015 ), the incorporation of user-generated content in the news means that it becomes simultaneously more subjective and more emotional: an affective news stream is generated, replete with emotions, opinions, and subjective experiences. In social media especially, the news has become almost indistinguishable from conversation about the news.

Beckett and Deuze ( 2016 ) have found a trend towards an increasingly personalised and emotionalised journalism in the age of networked news, with growing use of the first-person in writing. Accelerated by digital media, definable in all respects as postmodern media, we are thus moving toward a confessional, subjective journalism (Coward, 2013 ). The crisis in the objective reporting of reality and the very concept of truth brought to light by postmodernism have caused, to use the words of Bogaerts and Carpenter ( 2013 : 69-70), “a new truth-claim in journalism, turning from claims based on objectivity to those based on authenticity”. The concept of truth has thus become subjective on all counts, losing any reference to universality or to a shared certainty. All the convergence processes just mentioned, typically postmodern insofar as they supersede the (modern) division between professional, normative journalism and its “other”, have induced the rise of subjectivism, perspectivism, and relativism: if the confines of journalism have eroded and there is no more truth, then all that can be told are different stories from different perspectives. This process is seen on all counts as the expression of a postmodern turn: all opinions become legitimate, and references to facts become increasingly remote in this “cacophony of mediated voices” (Silverstone, 2007 : 1–24). For all these reasons, the end of modern metanarratives in the network society means that journalism has also been transformed into a subjective, perspectival account of reality that some scholars define as “postmodern”.

The subjective fulfilment of modernity: Heidegger and Nietzsche

As mentioned earlier, Nietzsche’s aphorism – “facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations” – is considered the emblem of the postmodern paradigm. Nevertheless, the epistemology of digital media, in the form it has taken for the last 10 to 15 years at least, can be viewed more appropriately as a fulfilment of the modern paradigm in a subjective form. This is also pertinent to online journalism, as we shall see in the last section. To understand what is meant by “a fulfilment of the modern paradigm in a subjective form”, we can turn to one of the better-known interpretations of Nietzsche’s thought, provided by Martin Heidegger in his courses between 1936 and 1946. In the third and fourth volumes of Nietzsche (Heidegger, 1991 [1961]), The will to power as knowledge and as metaphysics and Nihilism , Heidegger explains why Nietzschean philosophy should be understood as a fulfilment of metaphysical thought and scientific rationalism. Heidegger views Nietzsche as the thinker who carried out “the fulfilment of the metaphysics that began with Plato” (Heidegger, 1991 [1961]: 261). Nietzsche preserves the Platonic distinction between a true world and an apparent world but reverses it (the sensible world takes the place of the supersensible or transcendent world). Important to our enquiry is Heidegger’s idea that the fulfilment of metaphysical thought derives from Nietzsche’s assumption that being is will to power, which, as such, rests on nothing but itself: it has no foundation, precisely because the distinction between a true world and an apparent world has fallen into decline. As a result, there is no transcendent principle based on which one can establish what is true or false: being as will to power is a radical form of perspectivism and subjectivism. In Heidegger’s reading, however, this is what makes Nietzsche’s work a form of metaphysical thought that leads to the triumph of scientific rationality. Nietzsche does indeed conceive of the world as material available to the will to power, as that which can be forged by humans as they please. All this is summarised in Nietzsche’s aphorism, recalled by Heidegger: "To ‘humanise’ the world, that is, to feel ourselves more and more masters within it" (Heidegger, 1991 [1961]: 614). Eliminating any transcendental foundation of truth opens the way to a different form of metaphysical thought: it is flipped over from an “objective” to a “subjective” metaphysics. Although subjective, it remains a form of metaphysics but one intended as a fulfilment of scientific rationality.

Taking Heidegger’s approach and applying it to the aphorism “facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations” casts a different light on Nietzsche’s words: no longer do they appear as the foundation of postmodernism but, rather, as expressive of the modern paradigm – a paradigm tied to scientific rationality and the search for truth but flipped over into subjectivity. The following sections explain why the epistemology of the online world is more in line with the modern paradigm than the postmodern one, and how this also affects online journalism.

The algorithmic web as a reintroduction of modern metanarratives

Several assumptions of the postmodern paradigm are not easily reconciled with the form that online public discussion has taken in recent years, also challenging the association between digital media and postmodernism. Selective content exposure and the consequent formation of homophilic networks caused by the functioning of algorithms on the leading platforms generate a communicative exchange whose foundations are quite different from those of postmodern thought.

The first assumption of postmodernism that is in strong contradiction with the phenomena just mentioned concerns the virtual equivalence of subjective points of view, which is a corollary of the collapse of all metaphysics and all modern rationalistic projects. The idea that the ending of metanarratives opens the way to a plurality of narratives, micronarratives, and differences in points of view appears both in philosophical currents belonging to “weak thought” (Vattimo, Rovatti 2013 [1983]), issuing directly from postmodernism, and in the work of Lyotard himself ( 1984 ). The basic assumption of this opening to difference is the acceptance of all diversity. Since no one discourse can set itself up as hegemonic and absolute (because any claim to truth is a manifestation of power and leads to authoritarianism), postmodern subjectivism takes the form of “charity”. No one can establish which point of view is true: as a result, public debate starts from an acceptance of all outlooks, leading to dialogue and, ultimately, mutual solidarity. In the linguistic games that Lyotard speaks of, no discourse is privileged over others: knowledge emerges as the acceptance of a plurality of discourses.

These points are also pertinent to the more general association between postmodernism and new media, i.e., the mass media developed after the emergence of information technology and using digital technologies. In giving life to the network society, new media pluralise public discourse in such a way that, theoretically, it can no longer be subjected to any form of domination: it is freed, in other words, from all metanarratives. Nietzsche’s aphorism, the emblem of postmodernism, postulates reality’s reduction to interpretation. But as Maddalena and Gili ( 2020 : 66) recently noted, “when there are no longer any criteria to evaluate the validity of different discourses […] every idea and interpretation is equally legitimate”. The premise of modernism was a monological voice that described reality by objectifying it, in which a text had only one possible meaning. With postmodernism, the closed meaning of the modernist text is replaced by a dialogical reality, in which every message is open to a plurality of meanings and points of view on the world: this also applies to journalistic texts (Lähteenmäki, 1998 ; Soffer, 2009 ). The idea of a plural dialogue, which assumes that all points of view are equivalent, is in blatant contradiction, however, with the fragmentation of online public debate, the selective content exposure caused by algorithms, and the ensuing polarisation and radicalisation of opinions. The concepts of filter bubbles – i.e., the customised information ecosystem created by algorithms in which users are exposed to information that supports what they already believe and like (Pariser, 2011 ), and echo chambers, closed and homogeneous virtual environments in which divergent views have no place and subjects always hear the echo of their own voice and opinions (Sunstein, 2001 ) – have found their way into academic discussion, entering into the lexicon of journalism and common speech. Naturally, these concepts are not accepted uncritically by the scholarly community. Over the years, some studies have objected to a lack of empirical evidence, arguing that the findings do not support the thesis of greater polarisation online than offline (Fletcher and Nielsen, 2017 ; Bruns, 2019 ).

It must nevertheless be noted that recent empirical studies give greater credence to the idea that pre-existing opinions on the web are reinforced due to selective content exposure (especially the news), to such an extent that the plurality of public debate is put at risk, fostering the radicalisation of opinions (Claussen et al., 2019 ; Levy, 2021 ). In a comparative analysis of these and other studies, Aral ( 2020 : 250) recently argued that, despite conflicting theses that have alternated over recent years, “evidence from multiple experimental studies shows that the machine’s recommendation algorithms create filter bubbles of polarised content consumption”.

This is why the narratives that form in online “tribes” (including journalistic ones, as we shall see in the final section of this article) are more and more similar to the grand récits of modernity than to the open narratives of postmodernity. In concrete terms, this refers to the fact that within homophilic networks, the complexity of reality is reduced to simple, all-encompassing schemas, in which every facet of reality serves to confirm pre-established opinions. These are the same principles that Lyotard identified as the basis of modernity’s metanarratives, such as Marxism, Idealism, and the Enlightenment, which sought to explain reality through unitary principles (Reason, Spirit, the laws of materialism). These were the principles that gave reality an absolute, overarching meaning, and were somehow able to explain every phenomenon. As Hannah Arendt ( 1951 ) observes, the concept of ideology should be understood etymologically as the “logic of the idea”: as an attitude that compresses the infinite variety of reality into an absolute logical schema and satisfies the desire for meaning. In a nutshell, precisely because of its ultrarational basis, the ideological attitude is impervious to factual denial. This is exactly what led to Karl Popper’s observation (2002 [1963]: 45–46) on the Marxist theory of history and Freudian psychoanalysis:

“I felt that these other three theories, though posing as sciences, had in fact more in common with primitive myths than with science […]. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. […] the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it […] and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth. […] A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history”.

Like the philosophical systems developed from the principles of modern science (think of the Cartesian Method), the algorithmic epistemology works on a completely deductive and falsely empirical basis to make each successive piece of data confirm the initial thesis. This mechanism is one of the most studied and analysed dynamics belonging to the world of online communities, and it relates to what media sociology defines as "confirmation bias" (Zhao et al., 2020 ) and the "backfire effect" (Nyhan and Reifler, 2010 ; Jarman, 2016 ). Through studies conducted on numerous Facebook pages and groups, Quattrociocchi and Vicini ( 2016 , 48-50), among others, have pointed out that communities of users who are grouped together and strongly polarised on a specific position tend to take as true news that is scarcely credible, provided it is consistent with their reference narrative. This process has to do with confirmation bias, namely, a mechanism that leads individuals to consider true only information that falls within their belief system. To make matters worse, empirical studies on Facebook groups show that debunking operations are not only unsuccessful, but they also tend to reinforce the very belief system they seek to discredit, thus causing a backfire effect. For users who are convinced, for instance, of the truthfulness of a conspiracy theory, the more they are exposed to information showing the fallacy of their position, the more they will strengthen their initial belief. They do this either by ignoring and discarding information that contradicts their theory, or by taking it as devious attempts to conceal the truth. The backfire effect thus consists in a paradoxical reinforcement of the polarisation of individuals and groups who are exposed to factual denials of the ideas they believe in: guided by the tribal emotionality produced in them by selective exposure to certain content, instead of reflecting on their ideas and reconsidering them, these individuals and groups will increasingly reinforce their identity and their sense of group belonging.

The narratives of online communities, which also absorb journalistic narratives, as we shall see, thus seem to draw on the grand narratives of modern thought. Instead of moving toward a postmodernist relativism and perspectivism, the web of algorithmic engineering leads toward a subjective fulfilment of modernity: just as the metanarratives of modernity claimed to provide an objective and truthful explanation of all aspects of reality, so in online metanarratives each individual group believes its own worldview to be true, absolute, and capable of explaining all things. Contrasting narratives are not accepted in the name of a fundamental relativism, as postmodernist assumptions would have it; instead, they are rejected as false and often bitterly opposed, in line with the dynamics of radicalisation and polarisation described earlier.

Although, as specified, the epistemological paradigm presented here refers to the global North countries, a few examples concerning the nations of the global South can be given to highlight some possible effects of algorithmic news dissemination processes on societies that already present strong levels of polarisation and, sometimes, low levels of digital literacy. In Myanmar, for example, Facebook has admitted to playing a role (described as “decisive” by a UN report) in fomenting hatred against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Low digital literacy, in Myanmar, meant that users lacked the tools to respond critically and reflectively to the proliferation of disparaging and inflammatory posts against the Rohingya, which Facebook soon made viral (Osnos, 2018 ). In another low digitally literate country like the Philippines, on the other hand, Facebook-induced polarisation dynamics and the proliferation of fake news fostered Duterte’s legitimisation of his own autocratic and repressive power, as highlighted by a BuzzFeed investigation (Alba, 2018 ). And again, a BBC investigation highlighted how, in an already heavily “tribalised” nation marked by ethnic-religious conflicts like Nigeria, users’ hyper-emotional responses to content that went viral on social media (and often manipulated) contributed to massacres of Christians by Muslims and vice versa (Adegoke, 2018 ). This scenario of further balkanisation, in nations of the Global South, may thus be influenced by variables such as “digital literacy and competencies, limited access to information and exposure to various kinds of self-sorting online groups. Thus, not everyone shares fake news with the intention to cause harm” (Mare et al., 2019 : 6). It follows from what has been said so far that the subjectivism of the algorithmic web cannot be defined as postmodern but rather as a subjective reversal of modernity: it does not lead to dialogue between different but equally legitimate opinions but to an antagonism between narratives that are indeed subjective but at the same time claim to be true and absolute (like those of modernity, which founded this same claim on universality rather than subjectivity). Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche thus serves particularly well to explain the turn that subjectivism has taken in the algorithmic web. As regards Nietzsche’s aphorism that celebrates the end of facts and the triumph of interpretations, Heidegger’s idea allows us to locate it in a different paradigm than that of postmodernism, seeing it instead as a fulfilment of the metaphysics of subjectivity, and to clarify the idea that the universal assumptions of modernity’s metanarratives have been reversed into subjectivity.

As Gade ( 2011 : 114) reminds us, "to postmodernists, science is but one discourse, and it includes all the biases of any discourse: it imposes a set of processes and rules on how to see and define the world, and these processes shape thinking in ways that obscure seeing the world as it actually is". What happens in online communities through the cognitive dynamics of confirmation bias and the backfire effect represents a similar shutting out of reality, which is now encapsulated in a preconstructed narrative and system of meaning within a single group and constantly reinforced by selective exposure to content (including news content).

The equivalence of interpretations is not associated with the algorithmic web and the narratives formed there; similarly, the postmodern assumption of the plural and never-definitive meaning of a text also does not correspond to what is found online, particularly on social networking sites. To meet a social network’s need for meaning, the texts circulating on the web often present a full, absolute, easily and immediately comprehensible meaning capable of generating emotional reactions (in the form of likes, shares, and so on), thereby winning the battle for users’ attention. Taking as an example the headlines of news articles as they are conveyed on social media immediately calls up the phenomenon of “sharebaiting”, in which users are prompted to share content based on the headline alone, by clicking on an article without reading it through. This happens precisely because of the emotional charge and fullness of meaning expressed by the wording of online headlines, which are instrumental in making them go instantly viral. A study by Columbia University (reported in Dewey, 2016 ) showed that almost 60 per cent of the links shared on social media had never been opened by users, confirming the effectiveness of these strategies: the headlines express an immediate, complete sense of meaning for the social networks for whom the information content is intended.

Clearly, there is no plural meaning here, no polysemy, no multi-voice dialogue, as the principles of postmodernism would have it. Rather, the headlines on social media are constructed to be short and concise, with a suggestive character, to reduce the complexity of the narrative (and reality) and fit into a pre-established schema of meaning. In this case too, then, the web of algorithms, filter bubbles, and echo chambers draws on a paradigm that is much closer to the grand narratives of modernity than to the dialogic plurality of postmodernity. Subjectivism, as in Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche, should therefore be understood within a rationalist, Enlightenment epistemology, one that is modern in all respects, in which individual narratives maintain their pretension to express an absolute truth impervious to factual denial, and to convey it in online social networks. It remains to be seen how these observations on headlines also apply to journalistic narratives.

Information platformization and journalistic (meta)narratives

With the massive transfer of information onto the web, journalism has progressively absorbed the principles and imperatives that guide the functioning of online platforms. The shift toward a subjective form of modernism, rather than toward postmodernism, brought about by the algorithmic web can, therefore, also be applied to journalistic narratives, insofar as it is the online platforms and their algorithms that influence both the production of information by news organisations and the consumption of information by users. In other words, there is a "platformization" of information, which makes journalistic narratives subject to the same principles that govern the circulation of other content on the web. Information progressively loses its public value and is transformed into a “private value”, especially on the web and in social media, in line with the commercial rationale and monetisation of interactions that guide the functioning of platforms. As the consumption of information is increasingly influenced by selective exposure to content (due to algorithmic filters), “information bubbles” are generated that also influence how journalistic texts are composed: to maximise interactions and revenues, these too must attract interest within those same bubbles.

First, as is well known, for many years now the consumption of information via social media has increased disproportionately (Newman et al., 2022 ). Social media have become the new “infomediaries” (Rebillard and Smyrnaios, 2010 ), the true mediators of information. This implies, however, that information consumption is strongly conditioned by networks of individual users, who read what their contacts have shared on their walls. Social media have been referred to as “secondary gatekeepers” (Shoemaker and Vos, 2009 ): also included within this category is “audience-based gatekeeping” (Nielsen, 2017 : 90), that is, the contacts in a user’s social network that determine their information consumption. Clearly, the network rationale already steers information consumption to form “information bubbles”, since news consumption takes place within networks of users who share the same mindset, political orientation, and worldview. Moreover, in serving this type of audience, social media and platforms in general follow the rationale of spreadability (Jenkins et al., 2013 ): in other words, they have to offer information content that maximises interactions and generates actions such as likes, comments, and shares. These aspects in particular reinforce the tendency to form ideological bubbles (Klinger and Svensson, 2018 ), since the user network is offered content in line with the ideological orientation of its members (specifically with the goal of making it simpler to generate interactions and revenues).

Indeed, news organisations increasingly produce content based on its estimated potential circulation (Anderson, 2011 ). These estimates hinge on the datafication process (van Dijck 2014 ), whereby metrics on information consumption (such as trending topics) dictate the topics to be covered. However, if information consumption is already highly polarised and ideologised, news organisations will be obliged to produce content in line with their users’ attitudes. Given these conditions, journalistic narratives can hardly be constructed as narratives that are open to a plurality of meanings, dialogical, and designed to elicit reflective responses from users. Quite the opposite: there will be a tendency to propose content that is instantly understandable, has an immediate emotional impact, responds to the ideological orientation of the information bubble for which it is intended, and consequently satisfies the need (typical of any bubble) for an absolute meaning, defined once and for all.

As noted earlier, this is primarily due to the ‘platformization’ of information, that is, the result of news outlets absorbing the principles (and values) of online platforms, as well as the fact that these platforms are gradually taking over the role of information and news providers. A process of “disaggregation” (Carr, 2008 : 153) is taking place, by which news organisations no longer act as news gateways and are replaced by search engines, news aggregators, and social networks. Within this framework, the audience is no longer an information audience: it is composed, rather, of platform users. These processes mean that “as platformization continues to penetrate more sectors of society, the distinction between private and public is increasingly glossed over as an irrelevant societal classification” (van Dijck et al., 2018 : 30). Under these circumstances, journalism also tends to lose a great deal of its public values (its role in democratic systems, separation from power, comprehensive coverage so that everyone has a voice, and so on). A shift takes place "from a model that primarily revolves around editorial autonomy to one based on datafied user interests and activities.” But "user data are never a neutral reflection of user interests but always shaped by the techno-commercial strategies of platforms" (van Dijck et al., 2018 : 57). The data, which forms a basis for setting the editorial line (dictating which news items are chosen and the language used to cover them), are influenced by the bubble-forming algorithms: consequently, they tend to produce news “for bubbles”, since this is what generates the most interactions and revenues. News organisations are pushed towards communicative models that privilege private, subjective, and often ideological meanings, specifically due to the commercial rationale of the platform to which they are subject.

The equivalence proposed in this article between the algorithmic web, ideological bubbles, and the grand récits of modernity is thus applicable to journalistic narratives as well: they absorb the guiding principles of the platforms, which drive the production process as much as they do news consumption. Here again, subjective, ‘private’ journalism directed toward a platform audience cannot be qualified as ‘postmodern’, since in both its choice of topics and language it is a journalism that aims to create antagonisms rather than dialogue, to provide absolute rather than open narratives, to satisfy the desire for meaning of online communities. Emotional, captivating headlines, the choice of highly divisive, polarising topics, all of this succeeds much better (due to the platform affordances) in capturing the interest of users, thus also catering to their desires and generating greater revenues.

This is not postmodern journalism, therefore: it is modern journalism reversed into a subjective form. Even the narratives conveyed by news organisations in information bubbles are in fact metanarratives, endowed (for that one particular bubble) with an absolute, all-inclusive meaning, capable of encompassing all facets of reality and “explaining everything”. From universal, objective metanarratives we pass to subjective metanarratives. It is indeed true that with the postmodern turn everything became interpretation; however, inside each ideological bubble, each person’s narrative is considered an absolute truth. Having lost its public function of providing information and dialogue, and having acquired the rationale of a platform aimed at maximising revenue (through the interactions of polarised audiences), journalism tends to reinforce this process.

As for the countries of the Global South, which have been hinted at during this work, it should be noted how the production and especially the consumption of news is often influenced by the cost of accessing information. Indeed, it has been noted how, especially in African countries, many media outlets lock their content behind paywalls: this limits access to information for substantial portions of the population (Mare et al., 2019 ). The consequence of this limited access to a multiplicity of information sources is that people often mistake “the popularity or virality of a shared piece of information as an indication of its veracity” (Chakrabarti et al., 2018 : 44). Again, there are therefore mechanisms of news platformization that, in the absence of full access to information by the population, can generate or exacerbate some of the effects described in relation to the context of Global North countries.


This article offers an alternative conceptual framework to the interpretation that views online journalism as a shift from a modern to a postmodern paradigm. It begins by reconstructing the main theories that explain the link between the modern paradigm of journalism and the assumptions of scientific modernity and shows how the journalistic ideal of objectivity is often equated with a metanarrative like those that structured the philosophical and scientific discourses of modernity. It then reconstructs theories showing how journalism has shifted, along with the gradual rise of the web, from the paradigm of objectivity to a form of marked subjectivism. This trend has been reinforced by platform affordances, the phenomena of media convergence, and a contamination between information actors, communication models, and types of content. This subjective stance is generally associated with the postmodern turn and with Nietzsche’s aphorism that "facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations". It is argued, however, that Nietzsche’s aphorism and the postmodern paradigm, in general, are inadequate to define the turn taken in the production and consumption of online content (including information), which is strongly influenced by platform algorithms and the formation of ideological bubbles. The narratives that emerge within highly homogenous and polarised online social networks are actually the metanarratives of modernity: like the systems of thought that claimed to explain every aspect of reality, narratives that can “explain everything” are favoured within bubbles, because they provide an absolute meaning never contradicted by the data of reality. Confirmation bias and the backfire effect explain the imperviousness of these bubbles to evidence that refutes pre-constituted narratives. This clashes with several assumptions of postmodernism: the equivalence of interpretations, an openness to other people’s points of view, dialogue, and a plurality of textual meanings. On the contrary, online texts tend to assume a monolithic meaning, one that is absolute and defined once and for all.

All these factors lead to the hypothesis that the algorithmic web represents a fulfilment of the universal metanarratives of modernity but flipped over into a subjective form. For this reason, starting from Nietzsche’s aphorism, Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche is proposed as most suited to capture the characteristics of this subjective fulfilment of modernity. Heidegger saw Nietzsche’s thought as a reversal of an objective metaphysics into a subjective metaphysics, making it a fulfilment of scientific and Enlightenment rationalism (rather than the forerunner of postmodern thought, as Nietzsche would be considered from the 1970s on).

Lastly, this algorithmic, polarised logic, which revolves around the phenomena of filter bubbles and echo chambers and reintroduces the principles of modern metanarratives, also applies to journalistic narratives. Indeed, information makes up part of the content that is increasingly dependent on the operating mechanisms of online platforms, which, through their affordances, impose a highly “privatised”, subjectivist and ideological model of news production and consumption. Journalistic texts and narratives thus succumb to a fate similar to that of other content circulating on the web. For this reason, within the framework of algorithms and ideological information bubbles, journalism does indeed express an epistemological model that revolves around subjectivity, but it cannot be defined as “postmodern”: rather, it is a subjective reversal of the metanarratives typical of modern journalism.

There are some limitations to this study. Firstly, the article’s intention is to make a theoretical argument in order to propose a new epistemological paradigm for online journalism. As such, it makes a theoretical synthesis that cannot take into account all the practices of digital journalism. Secondly, the proposed epistemological paradigm is limited to the countries of the Global North. However, some elements referring to the countries of the Global South, particularly those in Africa, have been presented, which may allow for comparative reflection. This may lead future studies to analyse how the epistemological paradigm proposed here can be integrated with epistemological models more directly referring to journalism in the countries of the Global South.

Affordances are the properties that a technological object possesses and which in fact already suggest a use for the object itself.

Journalism by non-professionals who disseminate information using social media, blogs and websites.

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“A new business model for quality online news; that is the twenty-first-century Holy Grail that the news business is looking for”, writes Van der Wurff in 2012 (p. 231). With this quote, the author not only describes a situation that was evident as early as the early 1990s, when the first journalistic website appeared on the internet, but also draws attention to the issue of digital journalism’s financial viability, which remains a concern today. However, “journalism as we know it has developed intertwined with a particular business, the business of news” (Kleis Nielsen, 2016, p. 51). And this particular business, manifested today as a digital marketplace, sustains journalism (as most journalists work for private businesses, and they account for the majority of the news produced and disseminated) but also constrains journalism (as that the primary aim of these companies is to make a profit—not so much the professional accomplishment or public interest that motivates most journalists) (Kleis Nielsen, 2016, p. 51). In any case, in this business a diffused market logic pertains that regards news as a product or a commodity. Furthermore, scholars have begun to highlight the essence and characteristics of “emerging” markets. Kyle (1985) suggested that the notion of “emerging markets” relies on the characteristics of “tightness, depth and resiliency” (p. 1316). Lesmond (2005) argues that emerging markets’ core characteristic is the notion of “liquidity”, namely to what extent these markets have concrete and stable operational characteristics. Cavusgil (2021) offers a systematic pattern of these characteristics. These are, among others, idiosyncratic institutions, relationalism, inadequate infrastructure, informal economy, and extensive state-owned enterprises. All of the above are characteristics that can be found in this volume which focuses on journalism in specific peripheral European countries.

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The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of "rules" but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable. For an expanded explanation, please follow this link .

case study of online journalism

For journalism instructors and others interested in presenting ethical dilemmas for debate and discussion, SPJ has a useful resource. We've been collecting a number of case studies for use in workshops. The Ethics AdviceLine operated by the Chicago Headline Club and Loyola University also has provided a number of examples. There seems to be no shortage of ethical issues in journalism these days. Please feel free to use these examples in your classes, speeches, columns, workshops or other modes of communication.

Kobe Bryant’s Past: A Tweet Too Soon? On January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant died at the age of 41 in a helicopter crash in the Los Angeles area. While the majority of social media praised Bryant after his death, within a few hours after the story broke, Felicia Sonmez, a reporter for The Washington Post , tweeted a link to an article from 2003 about the allegations of sexual assault against Bryant. The question: Is there a limit to truth-telling? How long (if at all) should a journalist wait after a person’s death before resurfacing sensitive information about their past?

A controversial apology After photographs of a speech and protests at Northwestern University appeared on the university's newspaper's website, some of the participants contacted the newspaper to complain. It became a “firestorm,” — first from students who felt victimized, and then, after the newspaper apologized, from journalists and others who accused the newspaper of apologizing for simply doing its job. The question: Is an apology the appropriate response? Is there something else the student journalists should have done?

Using the ‘Holocaust’ Metaphor People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is a nonprofit animal rights organization known for its controversial approach to communications and public relations. In 2003, PETA launched a new campaign, named “Holocaust on Your Plate,” that compares the slaughter of animals for human use to the murder of 6 million Jews in WWII. The question: Is “Holocaust on Your Plate” ethically wrong or a truthful comparison?

Aaargh! Pirates! (and the Press) As collections of songs, studio recordings from an upcoming album or merely unreleased demos, are leaked online, these outlets cover the leak with a breaking story or a blog post. But they don’t stop there. Rolling Stone and Billboard often also will include a link within the story to listen to the songs that were leaked. The question: If Billboard and Rolling Stone are essentially pointing readers in the right direction, to the leaked music, are they not aiding in helping the Internet community find the material and consume it?

Reigning on the Parade Frank Whelan, a features writer who also wrote a history column for the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call , took part in a gay rights parade in June 2006 and stirred up a classic ethical dilemma. The situation raises any number of questions about what is and isn’t a conflict of interest. The question: What should the “consequences” be for Frank Whelan?

Controversy over a Concert Three former members of the Eagles rock band came to Denver during the 2004 election campaign to raise money for a U.S. Senate candidate, Democrat Ken Salazar. John Temple, editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, advised his reporters not to go to the fundraising concerts. The question: Is it fair to ask newspaper staffers — or employees at other news media, for that matter — not to attend events that may have a political purpose? Are the rules different for different jobs at the news outlet?

Deep Throat, and His Motive The Watergate story is considered perhaps American journalism’s defining accomplishment. Two intrepid young reporters for The Washington Post , carefully verifying and expanding upon information given to them by sources they went to great lengths to protect, revealed brutally damaging information about one of the most powerful figures on Earth, the American president. The question: Is protecting a source more important than revealing all the relevant information about a news story?

When Sources Won’t Talk The SPJ Code of Ethics offers guidance on at least three aspects of this dilemma. “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” One source was not sufficient in revealing this information. The question: How could the editors maintain credibility and remain fair to both sides yet find solid sources for a news tip with inflammatory allegations?

A Suspect “Confession” John Mark Karr, 41, was arrested in mid-August in Bangkok, Thailand, at the request of Colorado and U.S. officials. During questioning, he confessed to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Karr was arrested after Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, alerted authorities to information he had drawn from e-mails Karr had sent him over the past four years. The question: Do you break a confidence with your source if you think it can solve a murder — or protect children half a world away?

Who’s the “Predator”? “To Catch a Predator,” the ratings-grabbing series on NBC’s Dateline, appeared to catch on with the public. But it also raised serious ethical questions for journalists. The question: If your newspaper or television station were approached by Perverted Justice to participate in a “sting” designed to identify real and potential perverts, should you go along, or say, “No thanks”? Was NBC reporting the news or creating it?

The Media’s Foul Ball The Chicago Cubs in 2003 were five outs from advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1945 when a 26-year-old fan tried to grab a foul ball, preventing outfielder Moises Alou from catching it. The hapless fan's identity was unknown. But he became recognizable through televised replays as the young baby-faced man in glasses, a Cubs baseball cap and earphones who bobbled the ball and was blamed for costing the Cubs a trip to the World Series. The question: Given the potential danger to the man, should he be identified by the media?

Publishing Drunk Drivers’ Photos When readers of The Anderson News picked up the Dec. 31, 1997, issue of the newspaper, stripped across the top of the front page was a New Year’s greeting and a warning. “HAVE A HAPPY NEW YEAR,” the banner read. “But please don’t drink and drive and risk having your picture published.” Readers were referred to the editorial page where White explained that starting in January 1998 the newspaper would publish photographs of all persons convicted of drunken driving in Anderson County. The question: Is this an appropriate policy for a newspaper?

Naming Victims of Sex Crimes On January 8, 2007, 13-year-old Ben Ownby disappeared while walking home from school in Beaufort, Missouri. A tip from a school friend led police on a frantic four-day search that ended unusually happily: the police discovered not only Ben, but another boy as well—15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck, who, four years earlier, had disappeared while riding his bike at the age of 11. Media scrutiny on Shawn’s years of captivity became intense. The question: Question: Should children who are thought to be the victims of sexual abuse ever be named in the media? What should be done about the continued use of names of kidnap victims who are later found to be sexual assault victims? Should use of their names be discontinued at that point?

A Self-Serving Leak San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams were widely praised for their stories about sports figures involved with steroids. They turned their investigation into a very successful book, Game of Shadows . And they won the admiration of fellow journalists because they were willing to go to prison to protect the source who had leaked testimony to them from the grand jury investigating the BALCO sports-and-steroids. Their source, however, was not quite so noble. The question: Should the two reporters have continued to protect this key source even after he admitted to lying? Should they have promised confidentiality in the first place?

The Times and Jayson Blair Jayson Blair advanced quickly during his tenure at The New York Times , where he was hired as a full-time staff writer after his internship there and others at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post . Even accusations of inaccuracy and a series of corrections to his reports on Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks did not stop Blair from moving on to national coverage of the war in Iraq. But when suspicions arose over his reports on military families, an internal review found that he was fabricating material and communicating with editors from his Brooklyn apartment — or within the Times building — rather than from outside New York. The question: How does the Times investigate problems and correct policies that allowed the Blair scandal to happen?

Cooperating with the Government It began on Jan. 18, 2005, and ended two weeks later after the longest prison standoff in recent U.S. history. The question: Should your media outlet go along with the state’s request not to release the information?

Offensive Images Caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad didn’t cause much of a stir when they were first published in September 2005. But when they were republished in early 2006, after Muslim leaders called attention to the 12 images, it set off rioting throughout the Islamic world. Embassies were burned; people were killed. After the rioting and killing started, it was difficult to ignore the cartoons. Question: Do we publish the cartoons or not?

The Sting Perverted-Justice.com is a Web site that can be very convenient for a reporter looking for a good story. But the tactic raises some ethical questions. The Web site scans Internet chat rooms looking for men who can be lured into sexually explicit conversations with invented underage correspondents. Perverted-Justice posts the men’s pictures on its Web site. Is it ethically defensible to employ such a sting tactic? Should you buy into the agenda of an advocacy group — even if it’s an agenda as worthy as this one?

A Media-Savvy Killer Since his first murder in 1974, the “BTK” killer — his own acronym, for “bind, torture, kill” — has sent the Wichita Eagle four letters and one poem. How should a newspaper, or other media outlet, handle communications from someone who says he’s guilty of multiple sensational crimes? And how much should it cooperate with law enforcement authorities?

A Congressman’s Past The (Portland) Oregonian learned that a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress, up for re-election to his fourth term, had been accused by an ex-girlfriend of a sexual assault some 28 years previously. But criminal charges never were filed, and neither the congressman, David Wu, nor his accuser wanted to discuss the case now, only weeks before the 2004 election. Question: Should The Oregonian publish this story?

Using this Process to Craft a Policy It used to be that a reporter would absolutely NEVER let a source check out a story before it appeared. But there has been growing acceptance of the idea that it’s more important to be accurate than to be independent. Do we let sources see what we’re planning to write? And if we do, when?

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Case Study: Doxing and Digital Journalism

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The crowdsourced nature of social media has made it possible for everyday individuals to gain celebrity status or to become known as public figures through their online personas. The malleable nature of online identity means that individuals are able to remain anonymous or control which parts of their identity are viewable to others, often making it easier to share controversial opinions or ideas. As such individuals gain more social and political influence, some argue that the public has a right to know who they are. This is why HuffPost started investigations into influential anonymous social media accounts, such as that of Mekelburg, that were spreading what many judge as false information and hate speech. HuffPost reporter Nick Baumann explains that while the First Amendment gives individuals the right to spread hate speech and discredited ideas anonymously, “the identities of influential anonymous people are inherently newsworthy” and should be made know to those who wish to know them. Baumann and O’Brien even argued that the story was not a case of doxing at all, since it presented newsworthy information to the public and answered concerns about the possibilities of Mekelburg’s account being an artificial bot or Russian troll. In this manner, they maintain that the story followed journalistic codes of ethics, including reaching out to Mekelburg’s family and her husband’s employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, who terminated his employment after news of the story broke.

The journalists maintained that this was not the coordinated harassment of many doxing campaigns, but was instead the common journalistic practice of seeking comments and reactions from those affected by the story before its publication. O’Brien argued that giving sources and affected parties “a chance to respond to information” is “exactly how ethical journalism works” and defended the information included in his report as necessary to the story. Emma Grey Ellis points out that while doxing campaigns tend to be undertaken by anonymous individuals that cannot be criticized in return, cases such as this involve named reporters who “have bylines, and can therefore be held accountable” for the stories they write and the information they include. Because of this, she argued that reporters like O’Brien “include only personal information that is relevant to a story--facts the public has a compelling interest in knowing.” Many believe that the information in the story was necessary to create a profile of Amy Mekelburg and provided context for her often-bigoted posts.

Others consider the story to be a case of justified doxing and as serving the public good. Many, like Marla Wilson, believe that doxing is “an effective way to make people think twice about being so bold with their racism” and that releasing the names of those behind racist online accounts creates a sense of accountability and encourages reflexivity by those who feel inclined to create them. Some argue that doxing forces those uttering unpopular opinions and beliefs to face the public and defend their ideologies rather than just placing them online.

Others believe O’Brien went too far in his story on Mekelburg and included information that was not necessary. In fact, some argue that the story was not necessary at all, and that by pursuing the identities of those behind social media accounts that spread beliefs considered reprehensible by some, it hurts rather than helps political and social discourse. Conservative reporter Kevin Boyd points out that by including background information about Mekelburg that revealed the identities of her family members and their businesses, the story gave “the impression that they either knew about or [agreed] with her tweets” and indicted them as supporters of her account and her beliefs. Because of such implications, many consider the story to be nothing more than an attempt to shame Mekelburg for her views and hurt her family’s businesses, ones that Mekelburg “has never been linked to or involved with” according to her sister-in-law Alicia Guevara. Damon McCoy points out that one of the main reasons doxing is used is to “expose those with whom [people] disagree with,” a position held by those who suggest that the report done by O’Brien and HuffPost was motivated by bringing shame to those with divergent political viewpoints. Some may argue that the revealing the identities of those behind reprehensible or unpopular speech is actually counterproductive to serving the public interest Tony McAleer, a former white supremacist who now runs a rehabilitation program for neo-Nazis, argues that doxing is not effective in ending hate speech and changing peoples’ viewpoints. “If isolation and shame is the driver for people joining [hate] groups, doxxing certainly isn’t the answer” argues McAleer. It actually “slows things down” in his efforts to rehabilitate those who subscribe to hateful ideologies given its employment of isolation and shame.

The ethics of doxing must be discussed more as its practice grows to include journalists and targets on all sides of the partisan spectrum. Emma Gray Ellis worries that “once you strip away the intentions… both sides are sharing the same swampy low ground” when doxing is used as an attempt to punish individuals for their political or personal beliefs. What are we to think about the uses of intentional or unintentional doxing by journalists working on contentious but important stories that might shed light on the political and social controversies of the day?

Discussion Questions

1. Was the HuffPost story on Mekelburg a case of doxing? Why or why not?

2. Was the story written and researched in the right way, regardless of whether we label it as a case of doxing?

3. Can journalists “dox” individuals behind online accounts? When and why can they participate in this practice? What limits should constrain their revelation of online identities?

4. How does the practice of doxing differ in the context of online journalism from that of activists seeking social justice? Does the role of journalist make any difference to the ethical limits of the act of doxing? How does investigative journalism differ from doxing, either by journalists or members of the public?

Further Information

Baumann, N. (2018, June 05). “A HuffPost Reporter Was Bombarded With Threats. Twitter Suspended Him.” HuffPost . Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/luke-obrien-doxed-threats-amymek_us_5b16bb9de4b0734a9937f2ca

Bowles, N. (2017, August 30). “How 'Doxxing' Became a Mainstream Tool in the Culture Wars.” New York Times . Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/technology/doxxing-protests.html

Boyd, K. (2018, June 04). “The HuffPost Ruined An Entire Family For One Person's Tweets.” The Federalist . Available at: https://thefederalist.com/2018/06/04/huffpost-ruined-entire-family-one-persons-tweets/

Ellis, E. G. (2017, August 17). “Don't Let the Alt-Right Fool You: Journalism Isn't Doxing.” Wired . Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/journalism-isnt-doxing-alt-right/

Ellis, E. G. (2017, August 18). Doxing Is a Perilous Form of Justice-Even When It's Outing Nazis. Wired . Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/doxing-charlottesville/

McCoy, D. (2018, May 01). When Studying Doxing Gets You Doxed.” HuffPost . Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-mccoy-doxing-study_us_5ae75ec7e4b02baed1bd06cc

O'Brien, L. (2018, May 31). “Trump's Loudest Anti-Muslim Twitter Troll is a Shady Vegan Wed to An Ex-WWE Exec.” HuffPost . Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/anti-muslim-twitter-troll-amy-mek-mekelburg_us_5b0d9e40e4b0802d69cf0264

Wilson, M. (2018, June 06). “An Online Agitator, a Social Media Exposé and the Fallout in Brooklyn.” New York Times . Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/06/nyregion/amymek-mekelburg-huffpost-doxxing.html

  • Jason Head is a research intern for the Media Ethics Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. More case studies and media ethics resources can be found at www.mediaethicsinitiative.org . Case studies produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative .

Resources for Educators & Students

A light snow falls on the Abraham Lincoln statue in front of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during winter on Dec. 28, 2015. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)


Ethics in a Nutshell  provides an overview of ethics and journalism ethics. It identifies the major approaches to ethics and models of ethical reasoning. The nature of ethics, range of ethics, theoretical and applied ethics, and types of theories are discussed.

Soon to be legacy, rows of card catalogue drawers are pictured in the Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on March 29, 2012. in May 2012, the library will remove the last of its card catalogues, completing a quarter-century transition to an online record system for books, journals and more. One row of built-in cases will remain as part of a historic display. More than 100 cases are being sold through UW Surplus With A Purpose (SWAP), and 6,700 drawers of cards are being recycled. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)


Digital Media Ethics  deals with the distinct ethical problems, practices and norms of digital news media. Digital news media includes online journalism, blogging, digital photojournalism, citizen journalism and social media. It includes questions about how professional journalism should use this ‘new media’ to research and publish stories, as well as how to use text or images provided by citizens.

Lake Mendota and the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, including Alumni Park and the Memorial Union Terrace, are pictured in an early morning aerial taken from a helicopter on Oct. 23, 2018. (Photo by Bryce Richter /UW-Madison)


Global Media Ethics  addresses development of a comprehensive set of principles and standards for the practice of journalism in an age of global news media. New forms of communication are reshaping the practice of a once parochial craft serving a local, regional or national public.

On Dec. 2, 2010, international correspondent for the New York Times Anthony Shadid (center) speaks to a group of journalism students in a Vilas Hall classroom at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Shadid is a UW-Madison alumnus and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)


The Shadid Curriculum draws from the journalism of those who have won or been named a finalist of the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics, and encourages student journalists to place themselves in the position of making difficult journalistic decisions.

Teaching Ethics

Logo for the "Media Ethics Division" of the Association for Educators of Journalism and Mass Communication

These teaching resources, which are compiled by the Media Ethics Division of the AEJMC (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication), cover a broad range of materials for teaching media or journalism ethics, including advertising, public relations and entertainment ethics.

Case Studies

Class activities, teaching resources.

case study of online journalism

  • Journalism and Media Ethics Cases
  • Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
  • Focus Areas
  • Journalism and Media Ethics
  • Journalism and Media Ethics Resources

For permission to reprint articles, submit requests to [email protected] .

How might news platforms and products ensure that ethical journalism on chronic issues is not drowned out by the noise of runaway political news cycles?

How can media institutions facilitate the free flow of information and promote truth during an election cycle shrouded in misinformation?

A reporter faces a choice between protecting a source or holding a source accountable for their public actions.

Should a source’s name be redacted retroactively from a student newspaper’s digital archive?

Should a student editor decline to publish an opinion piece that is culturally insensitive?

A tweet goes viral, but its news value is questionable.

What should student editors do if an opinion piece is based on factual inaccuracies?

Do student journalists’ friendships constitute a conflict of interest?

Is granting sexual assault survivors anonymity an act of journalistic compassion, or does it risk discrediting them?

Should student journalists grant anonymity to protect undocumented students?

  • More pages:


  1. (PDF) Online Journalism and E-papers: A new age

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  2. (PDF) Online journalism: A case study of interactivity of mainstream

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  3. Fillable Online Case Study for Journalism Education Fax Email Print

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  4. (PDF) Participatory Journalism Practices in the Media and Beyond: An

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  5. Case Studies in Collaborative Local Journalism

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  6. Introduction to Journalism

    case study of online journalism


  1. India’s local journalism under pressure

  2. Media and Journalism at University of East London

  3. Case Study online

  4. C++ Case Study: Online Ordering System

  5. Case Study Online Education Ivey University 2

  6. eBay Case Study


  1. Online Journalism Teaching and Learning Processes Beyond the Classroom

    In fact, online journalism has played a major role in the renovation of communications curricula over the past two decades. This article examines a case study on a teaching innovation project in online journalism based on the Internationalization at Home (IaH) transversal perspective.

  2. The ethical challenges and issues of online journalism practice in

    Chishala [26] studied ethical issues in online journalism by way of a case study with the Zambian Watchdog. It revealed that many online news media are unregulated and often cross the line in their reporting negating journalism ethics as practised in the mainstream media. ... It is based on the above notion that this study finds the theory ...

  3. Interactivity in the daily routines of online newsrooms: dealing with

    Online journalism myths can, therefore, be understood as a socially constructed discourse that was shaped under the historical context of the social adoption of the Internet and the crisis of the social role of journalism. ... Case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life.

  4. Online Journalism: Current Trends and Challenges

    In the past 25 years, the journalistic sphere has gone through radical changes and transformations, progressively adapting to the contemporary global trends in news‐making. Traditional understanding of journalism as a profession has changed significantly, mostly due to the fact that digital media environment has brought new opportunities but also challenges related to the journalistic ...

  5. Ethics Case Studies: Indiana University Bloomington

    The cases raise a variety of ethical problems faced by journalists, including such issues as privacy, conflict of interest, reporter- source relationships, and the role of journalists in their communities. The initial core of this database comes from a series of cases developed by Barry Bingham, Jr., and published in his newsletter, FineLine.

  6. Data-Driven Journalism: Roundup of Recent Standout Stories

    Notable Case Studies. The first data-driven story Houston and LaFleur reviewed was The Submerged City, from Amenaza Roboto, the only data and climate journalism site based in Uruguay. Published in November 2022, the story looked at sea level rise affecting the country's capital, Montevideo, which is largely caused by climate change and flooding.

  7. Liquid journalism and journalistic professionalism in the era of social

    What are the values and significance of journalistic professionalism in the changed situation? This article addresses these issues through a case study. It takes The Paper, an online news outlet in Shanghai, as a case and analyzes its coverage of the capsizing accident of the cruise, The Oriental Star, on Yangtze River in June 2015. This case ...

  8. The old-new epistemology of digital journalism: how algorithms and

    In journalism studies, the advent of the World Wide Web and the rise of online journalism are generally associated with going beyond the objective, normative paradigm associated with the ...

  9. Journalistic Relations and Values in the Networked Era: A Case Study of

    This was the vision of participatory (Borger et al. 2013) or networked journalism, according to which journalists actively cooperate with their audiences (Van der Haak, Parks, and Castells 2012 ). The value that seemingly guides the networked journalists' approach to relationship-building is that of transparency.

  10. Case Studies

    Case Studies: Investigating Where Garbage Goes Around the World. by Helen Massy-Beresford • May 22, 2023. GIJN looks at three different reports from Europe and Latin America that track where our garbage goes around the world and investigate the implications for people and the environment that waste can present.

  11. Introduction: Challenges in the Digital Era: Journalism and Digital

    The annual Digital News Reports published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford shows a consistent reluctancy by news consumers to pay for online news (Newman et al., 2021). For instance, in the latest version of the report (2021), the numbers show that less than 20% of digital news users (and ...

  12. Ethics Case Studies

    Ethics Case Studies. The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of "rules" but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First ...

  13. Case Study: Doxing and Digital Journalism

    The doxing of Mekelburg is important as it merges tactics of investigative journalism and online activism, and raises many ethical concerns. ... More case studies and media ethics resources can be found at www.mediaethicsinitiative.org. Case studies produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics ...

  14. Mobile sourcing: A case study of journalistic norms and usage of chat

    Valerie Belair-Gagnon is an assistant professor of Journalism Studies at the Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication, and Affiliated Faculty in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. She is Director of the Minnesota Journalism Center and Affiliated Fellow at the Yale Information Society Project. Her research interests are in journalism studies, emerging media ...

  15. Campaigning Journalism: A Powerful Tool for Making an Impact

    Campaigns offer an opportunity for public interest journalism to make the news we consume more empowering, and allow journalists to stake a strong case for why it matters, and deserves their support. The current drive of many news organizations to show their impact was well captured in a recent article posted on GIJN. Diana Lungu, who oversees ...

  16. Resources for Educators & Students

    Digital news media includes online journalism, blogging, digital photojournalism, citizen journalism and social media. It includes questions about how professional journalism should use this 'new media' to research and publish stories, as well as how to use text or images provided by citizens. ... Case studies covering digital ethics ...

  17. Journalism and Media Ethics Cases

    Journalism and Media Ethics Resources. Journalism and Media Ethics Cases. Find ethics case studies on journalism covering topics such as stealth journalism, pressures from advertisers, and the personal lives of public officials. For permission to reprint articles, submit requests to [email protected].

  18. a case study of online journalism education

    Making news online : a case study of online journalism education. Yang Song, 宋暘. Published 2014. Education, Computer Science. View via Publisher. Save to Library.

  19. (PDF) Shifting Journalistic Ethics in the Internet Age, Case Study

    The results of this study are expected to provide input to the articles in the Journalistic Code of Ethics to be applied not only in the practice of conventional journalism but also online journalism.

  20. Editor's Pick: 2021's Best Investigative Stories in India

    Deepak Tiwari is GIJN's Hindi editor, a senior Indian journalist, and former vice-chancellor of Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication in Bhopal. He has over 25 years of experience as a reporter, sub-editor, television commentator, media consultant, and managing editor of a media start-up, and is the author ...

  21. Looking back at journalism ethics research over the past decade: An

    This study aims to identify research trends and central concepts in the field of journalism ethics over the past decade. Focusing on four major journals—Digital Journalism, Journalism, Journalism Practice, and Journalism Studies— this article presents key findings from a topic modeling analysis of articles published between 2013 and 2022. An analysis of 1170 journalism ethics-related ...